Can a class encourage couples to marry?

Last November, Melinda Barton was ready to call it quits. She and her husband, Ben, were having difficulties less than a year after saying "I do," and she was leaning toward getting a divorce.

She thought they had tried everything to reduce conflict and make their marriage better. But after taking a course aimed at helping couples communicate more effectively, she's had a change of heart. Now she's confident that she and her husband, parents of a 9-month-old daughter, can work things out.

"We're so much happier," says Mrs. Barton, who lives in Yukon, a suburb of Oklahoma City. "We wouldn't have made it, I can almost guarantee you, without this course."

What the Bartons are learning could soon be spreading to cities and hamlets across the United States, as the White House plans to lobby Congress to approve a roughly $1.5 billion marriage-promotion package. The proposal hopes to reduce the welfare rolls by offering voluntary training to help people get and stay hitched. Not only would the institution of marriage be strengthened, the argument goes, but so would the prospects for children living in poverty.

While critics and proponents debate the plan's merits, grass-roots efforts and those by individual states to strengthen marriage have already sprung up across the country in the past five years, in part to help combat high divorce rates. National figures on divorce haven't been calculated in recent years, but the commonly held projection for new marriages is that about 1 in 2 will end in divorce.

Attendees give the courses a variety of grades - with some saying they come away with better problem-solving skills and the ability to resolve arguments more constructively. The feedback helps answer the $1.5 billion question - Do these courses make a difference in marriages? - and suggests that a national plan will need to adapt to the diversity that exists among welfare clients and couples in general.

Take Letisha Ulibarri of Flagstaff, Ariz. She knows how important marriage is. But even when she and her longtime boyfriend - both in their early 20s - were expecting a baby and receiving pressure from family members to marry, the couple resisted. After the birth of their son two years ago, they learned problem-solving techniques by attending a course called Couples Skills for Parents, sponsored by Strong Families Flagstaff.

"It helped both of us," says Ms. Ulibarri, explaining that her boyfriend was initially reluctant to attend. "I had to push him a little. But that class didn't make us rush. We both realize that it's still going to take a lot of time and work. We still may not get married."

That reluctance is echoed among some women on welfare. Their opinions about marriage vary from concern that it will reduce their benefits to a hesitation to leave their survival in the hands of a man. The national mood among this diverse group is perhaps reflected in a 2002 study conducted by researchers at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Among the Grand Rapids welfare recipients surveyed (most of whom were women),24 percent said marriage is not at all important to their situation. Twenty-six percent said that marriage was "absolutely essential" to their situation. The remaining 50 percent fell somewhere in the middle.

In Oklahoma, Barton and those who work with women on welfare confirm that not everyone is sold on the idea that marriage can help them. She knows two women who see no need to get married. Through welfare, they have medical benefits and food stamps. It isn't easy to make ends meet, they acknowledge, but they "have had bad experiences with men, had bad marriages," Barton explains.

Back in Grand Rapids, what surprised at least one researcher was the complexity of the lives welfare women lead - often they have multiple children, each with a different father, for example. So which man would they marry, if any, he wonders? One statistic from the study sheds some light on the answer: 84 percent of the participants reported a less than 50-50 expectation to marry the father of their last child.

"We cannot say that there's a one-size-fits-all policy on this marriage-support stuff. It'll always have to be client-focused and flexible," says Fred De Jong, professor of research and statistics at Calvin College and an author of the study.

That's not stopping clergy, counselors, and others who say improving the marriages they can is a worthy goal.

Some programs report reductions in divorce rates. At the very least, awareness about marriage education is increasing. Ms. Ulibarri in Flagstaff says her boyfriend was sharing their experience with others after class. "I was surprised that he was actually recommending it to people ... that was a good feeling," she says.

Barton, too, recommends the course she is in the process of completing. Part of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, it teaches couples how to communicate better, in part by being better listeners. "It's very useful and helpful," she says. "I think if your marriage is already going OK, and you're just having small problems, I would say, yeah, it could help a lot.... But in some circumstances, I think some couples would need more."

Still, even participants who get something out of the program struggle several years later to remember what they learned. "You get back into your life and you kind of forget things," says Kari Hawthorne, who, with her husband, Adam, took a weekend course in Oklahoma City after about a year of marriage.

The course was beneficial, she says, and helped them approach discussions better, "but I don't know that it's going to drastically change divorce rates."

Cindi Marcotte attended the same class with her husband. They are now divorced, but she highly recommends premarital courses or counseling, partially to make the process of getting married and divorced a little more difficult. "I definitely think everybody should go through something like that before they get married. It's one thing to date somebody, because you go home, but when you live with somebody, it is so totally different."

The class taught her how to communicate better, she says, and might be enough to save a marriage in the right circumstances. "If you have two willing partners, who want it to work, then yes, it would definitely be enough," she says.

In the case of Barton and her husband, that may prove to be true. She now has hope that their marriage can survive. "I want it to, I really do. I didn't want it to end.... I don't want it to, for me, or for Ben, or for Bailey. She needs her daddy, too."

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