Better Marriage Through Marketing, Not Coercion
Everyone is happy when they are engaged, even those who will eventually divorce. The feelings people have going into marriage do not predict the future of the relationship. Therefore I recommend that everyone get good premarital education. Here at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., I tell my Foundations of Psychological Science students this every semester. I convey to them it is the most important thing I will tell them all semester.
A group in Colorado is working to get an initiative onto the November ballot to require couples to get premarital education. It is further hoped that such initiatives will get passed in other states. I hope the proposals fail to pass.
Good, evidence-based, premarital education works. By evidence-based, I mean programs that are founded on scientific evidence and have been scientifically tested. Two such examples are P.R.E.P. and Prepare/Enrich. Not all premarital education programs are evidence based. On average, couples who participate in evidence-based programs are happier and more satisfied during the first few years of marriage, when divorce risk is at its highest, than couples who do not complete such programs.
As a society we will benefit if more people seek good premarital education. That children do best when raised by two happily married parents is one of the most robust findings in social-science research. Just as it is recommended that people get annual physicals, marital health would be better if people checked the health of their marriage before problems arise. Ideal times for additional education are before the birth of the first child and when the children leave home. These life transitions present new challenges for which new skills can be learned.
Most Americans, even those who are not particularly religious, want to get married in churches. The Marriage Savers organization encourages churches in communities to unite by requiring good premarital education of everyone who gets married in a church. These community-wide marriage policies have been shown to dramatically reduce divorce rates. Note that these policies are adopted by churches freely without coercion. Note too that couples who object to premarital education are free to have a non-church wedding or to have their wedding in a community where the churches do not require premarital education.
The research evidence is quite convincing. Good premarital education programs improve people’s lives. Yet I am strongly opposed to the ballot initiative on two grounds.
First, I am concerned about liberty. When government forces us to do things that experts say are good for us there will be no end to government intrusion in our lives. Think of all the things that are supposed to be good for us: reading, eating vegetables, saving for retirement, meditating, and the list goes on. How much documentation about how many activities do we need to provide to government officials so they know we are doing things for our own good?
Second, when the government begins requiring premarital education, it can begin regulating the content of the education. If you, like me, would like to see far more people get good premarital education, be careful what you wish for! Today we are free to base our programs on what science shows to be effective. We do not need government officials to determine what our programs should and should not include.
Marriage is a great institution. It is not only the best situation for raising kids; on average married people are happier, healthier, and wealthier than those who are not. Premarital education programs improve people’s odds of obtaining the bountiful blessings of a good marriage. The product is great. We may need better marketing, but we do not need the government to coerce people to buy our product.
Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher on Positive Youth Development with The Center for Vision & Values.