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States act to bolster marriage

A wave of legislation, including a Florida law, seeks to reduce divorces by pushing couples to get premarital counseling.

©Washington Post

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001

The young couple feared that their problems were the sort of annoyances that could creep into the corners of a relationship and eventually cause a marriage to fall apart: Mark Adkinson, 26, would try to solve his wife's worries, when all she really wanted him to do was listen. Jana Adkinson, 25, would unload the day's events as soon as Mark walked in the door, when he needed a few minutes to himself after a long day of work.

So the Adkinsons of Laurel, Md., went though premarital counseling before they got married last July. "It was a real eye-opener," Mark Adkinson said. "Even though we had been together a long time, there was a lot we hadn't talked about."

Delegate John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, wants more Maryland couples to take such a course before tying the knot and has sponsored a bill that would provide a discount on marriage licenses for those who do. The legislation, which passed the House 104-24 this month, is part of a wave of legislation that has appeared on state agendas in the past few years aimed at reducing a divorce rate that many see as the cause for a variety of taxing social ills.

In 1998, Florida enacted a law similar to the one Maryland legislators are considering, but it goes a step further: If couples don't take a marriage preparation course, they must wait three days to get a license. It also requires high school seniors to take a marriage preparation class.

In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee declared a "state of marital emergency" and vowed to cut the state's divorce rate in half.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating announced a $10-million initiative to cut his state's divorce rate by a third.

Utah, which holds an annual marriage conference, created a Commission on Marriage in 1998 to promote marriage and relationship classes in the state's high schools.

A New Mexico Republican state senator introduced a bill that would give people who complete premarital preparation courses a $100 tax credit.

"We wanted to prevent the situations where you meet someone and decide to get married in Las Vegas," said former state Rep. Elaine Bloom, a Democrat who sponsored the Florida legislation. "The more you can keep families together, the better it is for society."

Leopold's bill, which is co-sponsored by Delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, assigns the teaching job to social workers, psychologists and specially trained religious leaders.

"We spend millions of dollars to pay for the effects of the wreckage of marriage, but far too little for the tools of prevention to help strengthen marriage," said Leopold, who is divorced. "The sad reality is many people spend more time preparing for a driver's license than a marriage license."

The states' actions have led to a "marriage renaissance," said Diane Sollee, director of the District of Columbia-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.

Though the federal government no longer compiles divorce statistics, experts agree that more than 40 percent of American marriages end in divorce. And David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, said about a third of children are born out of wedlock, up from about 5 percent in 1960.

But do the laws keep couples together?

"That remains to be seen," Popenoe said. "But I think it's definitely worth a shot."

In Pinellas County about 17 percent of couples opt for the preparation course and qualify for a $32.50 discount on the $88.50 price of a marriage license, according to the clerk's office. In Palm Beach County, fewer than 15 percent get the discount.

In Maryland, the amount of the discount, which would be left to the counties, would not be even that much. For example, in Anne Arundel County, where a license costs $55, there could be only a $10 discount because $45 goes toward domestic violence programs and is off-limits.

But Leopold said it's the statement "that we believe in strong marriages" -- and not the discount -- that counts.

Still, some object to states' getting involved at all.

Last year, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent elected on the Reform Party ticket, vetoed a bill similar to Maryland's, saying the government should not be in the marriage counseling business.

Four years ago, Louisiana created "covenant marriage" options for couples, meaning they can divorce only after being separated at least two years or if adultery or abuse can be proved in court. But only Arizona has followed suit, and similar bills failed in Texas and Oklahoma.

Wisconsin lost a lawsuit last year after a judge said it violated the separation of church and state by creating a "marriage policy coordinator," who would work exclusively with clergy in establishing marriage policies.

The author of the bill, Wisconsin House Speaker Scott Jensen, a Republican, rewrote it to include secular officials and plans to offer it again this year.

"State and federal governments spend an extraordinary amount of resources on the fallout of broken marriages," he said, noting that the majority of the state's prisoners come from single-parent homes.

Sollee, of the coalition on marriages, said: "Everyone thinks marriage is a crapshoot, a game of chances. . . . So that's our excuse when we get divorced. Now we find out that it's not unpredictable. You can look at a couple and see who is going to make it with great accuracy. And we can teach the skills and behaviors that lead to strong marriages."

But not every couple's story ends so happily.

"In some cases, they take these courses and think twice, maybe even break up a relationship that was probably going to lead to divorce anyway," Popenoe said.

After going through the counseling, Mark and Jana Adkinson said, their relationship got stronger.

The couple was given a questionnaire that forced them to talk about issues they had never discussed: Does your future spouse have a problem apologizing? Is your spouse affectionate enough? Are there issues you're afraid of discussing? A question about how much they should spend on groceries prompted a compromise between Mark's penchant for coupon cutting and Jana's gourmet tastes.

"I think that we learned, above all, that it's important to remember what drew you to this person in the first place," Mark said. "And that no matter what happens, you love each other."

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