Tools to succeed: Decreasing divorce by strengthening marriages

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Theresa Jordan laughs after getting kissed by her husband, Luke. A class through the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative helped the couple learn more about their "love languages" and how public displays of affection aren't Theresa's favorite.

Courtesy of Theresa and Luke Jordan

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of two articles.

OKLAHOMA CITY — When Chad Feller came home from work and asked, "What's for dinner?" all his fiancé Misty heard was the criticism, "Why isn't dinner ready yet?"

She'd bristle and snap that she'd been busy with kids all day. Caught off guard, Chad would snap back about how tough his day had been and the fight began.

For Misty, this was how couples communicated.

"I grew up in a house where the fighting was bad," she said. "Nobody ever talked about anything. Yelling was the only way I knew how to deal with (problems). But when we went to the PREP class, it showed me we ... can understand and communicate before we ever escalate."

It's been several years since the Fellers took their first relationship class through the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative — a statewide push to strengthen marriages and families — but it's changed their lives. They saved their engagement, got married and attend a follow-up workshop each year, as a "refresher of how our marriage is supposed to be," Misty said.

"We've tried all these different methods, (counseling, anger management classes) but this was the best, the most usable," Chad said. "Rather than buzzwords and Kumbaya stuff, it was stuff you can actually do, and it really works."

For decades, marital and relationship education was left to churches or private groups that provided expensive counseling sessions or marriage retreats.

But in 1996 when the government reorganized their welfare program, they emphasized self-sufficiency as well as establishing and promoting stable, healthy marriages knowing that low-income families face the highest risks for divorce. Ten years later, a national Healthy Marriage Initiative encouraged more states and community groups to join in the task.

Utah and Oklahoma were the first to create statewide initiatives and dedicate federal welfare funds to relationship classes and healthy marriage programs.

In California and Tennessee, non-profits use federal grants and private donations to teach and mentor individuals, couples and families. And across the country, churches are doing more to prepare couples for marriage.

And despite some initial skepticism, these efforts are working.

Data and anecdotes show that couples are recognizing their relationship missteps, developing better ways to communicate and recommitting to healthy relationships.

Advocates are hopeful that this education, combined with legislative efforts to slow down the divorce process will create a cultural shift where divorce is no longer seen as the first or only option in a struggling marriage, and that couples everywhere can get help before a lack of skills sabotages their relationship.

"Reducing divorce is a big part of the solution and improving divorce is part of the solution too," said John Crouch, founder of Americans for Divorce Reform. "But I've spent long enough trying to improve divorce, and it's not going to fix a majority of cases. We really have to put more into prevention than into trying to do a better job of picking up the pieces."

Utah and Oklahoma

Every time Anne-Celeste Openshaw finishes teaching the first of the three-part class, "How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette," there's always someone waiting to talk to her.

"I now know what I've been doing wrong," they tell her, shaking their head incredulously.

It was only two and a half hours, but the information she shared about dating, the relationship attachment model and the five areas of bonding rocked their world, and often helped them see that they've been the jerk(ette).

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