Tools to succeed: Decreasing divorce by strengthening marriages

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

"I know it's good stuff," says Openshaw, who has a master's degree in Family and Human Development. "But it's amazing to me how many people don't think of relationships this way."

The class, now in eight counties, is provided through the Utah State University Extension Services as part of Utah's push for stronger marriages, which began in 1998 under Gov. Mike Leavitt and his wife, Jackie. Now called StrongerMarriage.org, Utah's initiative is funded through federal welfare dollars — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF — dollars designed to assist needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes, reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

While three of those goals relate to marriage, too few states use TANF dollars for marriage promotion or education, laments Chris Gersten, a former official in the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services and founder of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, a non-partisan group working to lower the divorce rate through legislation and education.

After he left D.C. in 2005, Gersten started a campaign to encourage states to devote just 1 percent of their TANF funding to strengthening relationships and marriages to reduce the need for future government intervention.

About 10 states responded — including Utah — but as the economy slumped and budgets got tighter, many states dropped the marriage emphasis. Utah kept the allocated 1 percent, and most recently used those funds for a media blitz to spread the word about the classes and services they provide.

"Rather than throwing more and more money towards the effects of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth," said Melanie Reese, coordinator for StrongerMarriage.org, "we try to prevent the problems up-front."

Oklahoma's Marriage Initiative came just one year after Utah's but has grown to become the nation's strongest, said Alan Hawkins, a Brigham Young University professor of family life. In the last 10 years, Oklahoma has received more than $30 million in TANF funds, reaching nearly 300,000 adults and 125,000 youth.

Oklahoma's ability to educate couples state-wide comes through its public/private partnership with Public Strategies, a project management firm that, under the state's leadership, oversees classes like "Forever for Real," "Family Expectations" for soon-to-be parents and no-cost weekend retreats for at-risk couples, like foster parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, couples affected by incarceration and financially vulnerable couples.

It was the "Forever For Real" class that helped Theresa and Luke Jordan not become another divorce statistic.

Though Luke thought they were fine, Theresa was struggling with anger and feelings of isolation.

They'd just had their second daughter, who quickly ended up in the hospital with whooping cough. On top of that, Luke got a new job and they moved.

During the free, all-day class they learned the importance of starting phrases with "I" rather than "you", the need to take ownership of their choices and the best "love language" to use with each other.

"Going to a program like this shows that we're all human, and we both have the ability to be more aware of what we're saying and doing to each other, and take a more active role in our relationship," Theresa said. "And just because it's challenging doesn't mean it's a reason to give up. In fact, it's kind of the reason to stay in it. It's going to be challenging in every relationship. (Problems) don't change just because you go out and find somebody else."

First things first

Standing waist-deep in the rippling stream, the fisherman carefully attaches a feathered lure.

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