- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2005

A major new study, “With This Ring … A National Survey on Marriage in America,” provides powerful evidence legislation pending in Congress reallocating $200 million to promote healthy marriages would be an excellent investment.

The study was done for the National Fatherhood Initiative by University of Texas Professor Norval Glenn states 86 percent of Americans agreed all couples considering marriage should have premarital counseling. It reports those with successful marriages were 60 percent more likely to have had premarital counseling. And 73 percent of unmarried couples would attend premarital classes, if available at no cost.

Virtually all clergy say they provide free premarital counseling, and 86 percent of all marriages are performed by pastors or priests. Yet 63 percent of all married respondents told the survey they had no premarital counseling. Why? Typically pastors offer a session or two to help couples plan weddings. That is evidence most churches are wedding factories.

However, 10,000 clergy in 198 cities have signed on to “Community Marriage Policies” to require rigorous marriage preparation involving a premarital inventory to help couples get an objective view of their relationship, and discuss issues it surfaces with a trained mentor couple over four months.

Churches taking this step reduced their divorce rate to near zero, such as a 3 percent rate in my church over a decade. Divorce rates for entire metro areas have fallen 50 percent in some cities such as Austin, Texas.

Thus, there is great potential for reducing divorce rates by simply improving premarital preparation. However, most clergy do not know what works. Full-time staff is lacking to organize clergy and train mentor couples. This is particularly true of large metropolitan areas. Most cities with Community Marriage Policies (CMPs) are smaller ones that volunteers can organize.

(Disclosure: my wife and I lead Marriage Savers, a group that helped clergy create the CMPs, and the administration asked me to speak to leaders of Healthy Marriage Initiatives.)

Three years ago President Bush proposed a “Healthy Marriage Initiative” in welfare-reform reauathorization, reallocating $200 million for “premarital education and marriage skills training” and “marriage mentoring programs which use married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk communities.”

Funds also could be used for “divorce reduction programs that teach relationship skills” and for “marriage enhancement and marriage skills training programs for married couples.” The bill, passed by the House three times, never got a Senate vote.

The National Fatherhood Initiative Marriage Survey (NFIMS) reports a need for such initiatives. Fully 94 percent of Americans agree divorce is a serious national problem and 97 percent agree “fathers are as important as mothers for the proper development of children.”

Of those surveyed, 9 in 10 say, “Couples who marry should make a lifelong commitment to one another, to be broken only under rare circumstances.”

Yet 1.4 million children are born each year to unwed couples, 36 percent of all births. Half of marriages end in divorce. Only 44 percent of teenagers live with their own married parents.

NFIMS also found fewer than 40 percent of first marriages “seem to be reasonably successful after 20 years.” Most marriages need a shot in the arm.

There are many ways to do that. Two million couples have attended a Marriage Encounter retreat, 80 percent of whom say they fell back in love with their spouse. That certainly happened in my marriage in 1976.

How can federal funding help personal relationships? Bob Suver, director of Jobs and Family Services (welfare) in Springfield, Ohio, heard me speak at a federal seminar. He invested $100,000 of public funds to create a Community Marriage Policy in 2004 that has been signed by 80 pastors.

In the first six months of this year, county divorce rates fell 29 percent below the average for 2000-2003. Mr. Suver says, “That will save taxpayers millions in welfare, food stamps, etc.”

It is cheaper to save marriages than to pay for broken ones. The $200 million for Healthy Marriages is appropriately in the House Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. Yet the version facing a Senate vote in two weeks does not include the marriage funding, a reallocation of existing funds, not additional money.

How can the Republican Senate not be interested in saving marriages and federal funds?

Michael McManus is co-founder and president of Marriage Savers and a columnist for “Ethics & Religion.”

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