Facilitating Forever

By Alan J. Hawkins, Ph.D Recently our attention has been riveted on the important debate about who can legally marry. Even with the recent Supreme Court rulings, the debate and legal struggles will continue for some time. As important as the debate over same-sex marriage is, however, I hope it won’t overwhelm an even more substantial public policy concern: How can we strengthen the institution of marriage for the sake of all children?

I believe family instability is the most important social problem of our time. That’s saying something given the wide range of social problems that exist in our society—intergenerational poverty, diminishing educational performance and opportunities, destructive drug and alcohol addiction, to name only a few. Yes, its true that stronger economies, less poverty, more access to good education, and recovery services for addicts will make more fertile ground for healthy romantic relationships and more stable marriages. But it is equally true that family instability contributes significantly to each of these social problems. The short- and long-term effects of the “churning” of couple relationships, as the eminent sociologist Andrew Cherlin calls it, contributes to poorer outcomes and reduced life chances for the children of these unstable unions (and for the adults themselves).

Whether legalizing same-sex marriage strengthens or weakens the institution of marriage, I believe we must stay devoted to the cause of endowing more children with their birthright to be reared in a stable family with two loving parents. Virtually all American youth and young adults still aspire to a healthy, stable marriage. But the work of achieving that life goal has perhaps never been harder, especially for less advantaged Americans.

Scholars and therapists know a lot about how to form and sustain those healthy relationships. We need to get that knowledge out of academia’s ivory towers and clinician’s wood-paneled offices to the public, especially those young people at greater risk for churning, unhealthy romantic relationships.

Over the past decade policy makers have begun to do this. State and federal governments have invested nearly $800 million dollars in supporting educational programs, targeted especially to lower income individuals, to explore whether these programs can help them form more stable families. I realize that in government budget terms, $800 million is barely a rounding error. But to those dedicated souls trying to provide these educational services to needy young people, these public nickels and dimes have been crucial.

The research so far on the effectiveness of these early efforts yields mixed results producing a kind of Rorschach test. Some are pessimistic about these new policy efforts to provide couples with knowledge and skills to strengthen their relationships. Others—myself included—see encouraging signs in the early research on these educational programs.  I think over the next few years we will see more rigorous research supporting the effectiveness of these programs.

Yet we know that we can do better. For instance, public funds have supported what must seem to many as a random array of educational services for youth, unmarried parents, and engaged and married couples. But there has been no grand strategy for what needs to be taught and when (and again) to help young people today successfully navigate the long, challenging road of contemporary romantic relationships to get to their desired destination of a healthy, stable marriage.

In my new book, The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships, I review these initiatives and the mixed body of evaluation research on them. And I respond to criticism of these policies. In addition, I critique what we need to do better. I advocate a feasible, strategic public policy agenda that, through my research and experience, I believe will help more couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages that will allow more children to grow up in stable families and improve their prospects for success in life.

We need to start early, in the adolescent and young adult years, with relationship literacy education to help young people understand better their desired destination and the relationship rules of the road to help them achieve their family aspirations. In addition, many young people today begin to run off the road when they get the crucial success sequence wrong (get an education, then get married, then have children). Children whose parents have not followed this life course sequence are, on average, at much greater risk for poverty and poorer outcomes. But most of these young, unmarried parents still yearn to make things work for the sake of their children. So we also need to provide them with what I call relationship development education to help them assess their relationship, strengthen their commitment, and improve the quality of the relationship so that more can achieve their dreams of a loving, stable family.

Then, when couples make that commitment to marriage, we need to provide them effective marriage preparation education to help them build a stronger foundation for marriage with, for instance, better communication and problem-solving skills. (And we will also help a few couples come to realize that they are making a poor decision and prevent a future divorce.) Also, we can’t rest on our laurels even if couples come to the altar better prepared and with less relationship baggage. For this long journey to forever, we should facilitate on-going participation in marriage maintenance education to counteract the universal forces of relationship entropy that naturally pull marriages apart. And for distressed and confused couples at the crossroads of divorce, we can provide divorce orientation education to help them make a more informed choice about the best path forward, including helping some couples repair their relationship, prevent an unnecessary divorce, and preserve stability for their children.

A state-driven agenda that starts early, helps keep young adults on a better trajectory towards a healthy marriage, then supports then for the long journey to forever is a more strategic approach to public policy to decrease family instability than the current scattershot approach of federal funding.  Multiple doses of well-designed marriage and relationship education at critical points along the early life course will get more young people to their desired destination of a happy and stable marriage and improve the odds for their children. Our educational efforts will need to improve, but I am confident this is happening. In the same way that we have built safer and more efficient cars over the past generation, I think we will build better educational programs to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages.

The good news is that we can publicly support these educational opportunities with current resources. And they can be delivered through existing educational infrastructures in our communities already skilled at reaching and working with young and needy populations. The major purposes behind our welfare program—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF—already include strengthening marriages and two-parent families to prevent poverty. I am advocating for states to set aside just 1% of their TANF funds that come from the federal government and invest those funds in these kinds of preventative educational services. If we can’t set aside 1% of TANF funds to try to prevent the relationship churning that is a major contributor to poverty in our society, then how serious are we about helping needy families? I am also calling for states to set aside $10-20 of each marriage license fee to extend funding for this series of educational initiatives. A lean staff of dedicated civil servants and a passionate advisory board of expert volunteers can provide strategic direction for this state-by-state public policy agenda.

Forever is still the dream. And getting and staying on the road to forever is challenging. But successful navigation of that road provides tremendous personal benefits for children and adults.  By one estimate, family instability costs U.S. taxpayers more than $100 billion a year. Accordingly, let’s make support for a state-driven strategic agenda of marriage and relationship education services a priority using current resources. The benefits will be both public as well as personal.

 

The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships, by Alan J. Hawkins, 2013.

- Available at Amazon.com.

Comments

  1. DivorcedDad says:

    I agree 100% with your comments that same-sex marriage is a far less important issue than divorce reform. Vastly more children are affected by heterosexual divorce than by same sex marriage. Really, what difference does it make whether or not same-sex couples can be married, when marriage itself has already been rendered meaningless? We should legalize heterosexual marriage first. As Judy Parejko, Stephen Baskerville, Maggie Gallagher, and others have pointed out in a few books, the movement to unilateral “no-fault” divorce has essentially nullified marriage. It is really annoying to see all this attention to same-sex marriage, and little public attention to divorce reform.

    Your book looks interesting. I’m going to order a copy of it today.

    DivorcedDad
    http://www.DivorceResistance.info

  2. Tom Anstead says:

    The absolute hypocritical gall of the “states”! So it’s marriage education they want to provide, is
    it? Then they need to start with this.

    Every single one of our fifty states embraces no-fault divorce. Not just tolerates or allows, but embraces. Every man, woman and child in the United States of America needs to know that. Child? Yes, even and especially children, because they are ones who are the most ravaged. Next, every single person in this country needs to know that their marriage
    and family mean literally nothing in the eyes of your state, be it Kentucky, New York, Vermont, etc. This is because it can be broken up at any time, for any reason. That is a supreme evil deception on the part of the “states” acting like they care at all, and throwing a few bucks at the problem, while no-fault divorce is simply left to reign over everything, the exact way it has for the last 44 sorry years.

    “A state-driven agenda that starts early, helps keep young adults on a better trajectory
    toward a healthy marriage, then supports them for the long journey to forever . . .” etc.,
    etc. The only state -driven agenda towards your marriage right now is to end it as soon as possible, remove one parent from the marriage, and forbid the responsible spouse from making a defense. Allowing a marriage to end for any or no reason is a strange form of “support” for the long journey to forever.

    Everyone in the United States of America, in 2013 needs to know this. Your state had the choice. It could have supported marriage, or it could have supported divorce. So here is the
    situation we have today. A marriage can be ended for any or no reason. But no force on earth can stop a divorce. This little stunt can be pulled for no reason, by persons who cannot be held accountable, and a defense cannot even be legally made against it. Is that not absolute power? Each of the fifty states had the choice of which one they wanted to
    protect, marriage or divorce. Which have all fifty chosen?

    As for the “safer and more efficient cars”, it doesn’t matter how much “education” there is
    if the car breaks down for no reason, and nobody’s accountable, and the owner is forbidden by law to fix it. In other words, what kind of evil deception is this that the states pretend to care while no-fault divorce is left in place? No matter how well you are prepared for marriage,
    under no-fault, your marriage is still intrinsically worthless. If something can be tossed away
    for no reason at all, I call that a pretty good working definition of worthlessness.

    “Marriage education” of any form is certainly good, but as long as we worship divorce in
    this country, it’s all pretty much for nothing and is just a supremely evil lie by your state. Do you ever ask yourself what your state gains by destroying your family? The state you live
    in gains something by the destruction of your family and the suffering of your children.

    The state I live in destroyed my family. Maybe your state destroyed yours as well. There are supposedly thousands, maybe millions of us. We are spouses forced into divorce, and
    children made to watch helplessly by. WHERE ARE WE? Why do we not tell our stories?
    If it’s education the states want, we need to start by educating ourselves and every one else
    about the truth behind “no-fault” divorce. If every single person in this country knew that his
    marriage and family are worthless in the eyes of his state, then maybe no-fault divorce could
    be abolished or at least seriously reformed. Then we might not even need the states’ money
    to “educate” us about the other stuff. Education is fine, but it’s worthless against the extreme power of no-fault divorce. We have to get rid of that first. Class dismissed.

    • Alan Hawkins says:

      No-fault divorce did change the meaning of marriage and states do not give any significance to the concept of “forever.” I do think it is time that states take a serious look at reasonable reforms to no-fault divorce. But I also know how hard it is for legislatures to do that these days. That’s why I support mandated divorce orientation education for divorcing parents before you can file for divorce. It won’t help everyone, but it may help some couples to decide to work on repairing the relationship and keeping the family intact.

  3. DivorcedDad says:

    After reading most of Alan Hawkin’s new book, I have to agree with him that divorce reform needs to start with politically-realistic steps. Though everything that Tom says about No-Fault Divorce is completely true, and I’d like to get rid of it just as much as he would, it just isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Even much more modest reforms such as the Parent Divorce Reduction Act have had strong opposition — just read some of the nonsense that people have posted in answer to Beverly Willett’s HuffPost articles. Getting rid of No-Fault Divorce is no more realistic than reducing drunk driver fatalities by bringing back the Prohibition. Marriage and relationship education (MRE), on the other hand, is feasible and could reduce parental divorce at least a little. I’ve become a certified Prepare/Enrich facilitator since my divorce, and I am just as convinced of its usefulness as I am of the evils of No-Fault Divorce. As Professor Hawkins says in his book, support of marriage education doesn’t mean not doing other actions as well.
    http://www.divorceresistence.info

    • Alan Hawkins says:

      Thanks for the endorsement! Yes, when in the realms of public policy, feasibility must be a primary concern. Reasonable and careful reforms may be possible, bit by bit, state by state.

  4. DivorcedDad says:

    I finally finished reading and studying the whole book. (Takes awhile for working single parents :) )

    Mostly I’m very impressed with the thought given to making divorce prevention more feasible. Other books point out problems – this book has some reasonable ways to fix them.

    I liked that you thought of the same comparison that I did, of the parallels between tobacco reforms since the 1960s and divorce reform today. America could and did gradually pass laws to reduce smoking and improve public health since the 1960s despite considerable resistance, and we can pass laws to gradually reduce divorce and strength marriage now. See http://www.divorceresistance.info/tobacco.html

    I just have a couple of small disagreements:
    First is your claim on page 139 that “.. fear of divorce is, to some extent, misplaced. What we need is a healthy desire to avoid family instability”. This is not true. Divorce involves a property settlement and perhaps alimony, in addition to all the issues that cohabiting couple and their children would face upon breaking up. So a divorce defendant faces financial ruin, in addition to the emotional turmoil that somebody would feel upon breakup of a cohabitation relationship. Unfortunately, fear of divorce is a perfectly valid reason for cohabitation instead of marriage.

    Also, you have discussed public policy initiatives, but I don’t see any mention of the work being done by National Parent’s Organization, American Coalition for Fathers and Children, and other organizations to promote shared parenting, more reasonable child support, and reduction of alimony. These are all very relevant to the topic of promoting marriage, because they will reduce the financial incentives for mothers to file unilateral divorce and because they might reduce the fear of divorce. Fathers’ rights and divorce reform as closely related causes. These are also feasible public policy agendas – laws are getting passed.

    I have more comments on my own website, http://www.divorceresistance.info/Forever_Initiative.html. I hope you have a chance to take a look, and I hope your ideas can gather support.

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