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How States and Communities Can Strengthen Marriages 

The Social Breakdown

May 6, 2024

Family is the greatest source of social capital, providing the setting in which people grow, develop, and anchor their lives. Stable and healthy marriages are at the foundation of strong families.

Marriage is associated with myriad positive outcomes, including greater happiness and satisfaction with life, less loneliness, and better health.[1] Children raised in intact families are far less likely to live in poverty, experience abuse, spend time in jail, or drop out of high school, and they have better health, greater emotional well-being, and increased social mobility.[2]

A substantial number of Americans have experienced family instability though, due to declining marriage, increased unwed childbearing, and divorce. Although most Americans say they want to get married and value having a good marriage and family life, an ever-increasing number are failing to achieve these goals.[3] The breakdown of marriage is particularly common among the least advantaged Americans.[4]

Recognizing the importance of marriage, some states and civic institutions are working to bolster it.[5] Given the scope of the problem, much work is needed to reverse the trends that have unfolded over the past several decades.  

State-Based Examples

Two states have been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen marriage, Utah and Oklahoma.[6]

Utah began its Healthy Marriages Initiative in the late 1990s, with the goal of extending healthy marriage and relationship education in multiple settings across the state.[7] Today, most of the initiative’s efforts are provided through a website where people can access a variety of healthy marriage and relationship education resources.[8] For example, their website provides: online relationship and marriage courses, a research-based relationship assessment to help couples understand the areas of strength and weakness in their relationship, webinars, a list of locations around the state where people can find healthy marriage and relationship education courses, and guidebooks on how to prepare for a healthy marriage or handle thoughts about divorce.

Utah also has a “premarital education promotion policy.”  Couples receive a waiver for their marriage license fee if they participate in premarital education or counseling. The purpose of the premarital education promotion policy is to help prevent divorce by incentivizing couples to assess their relationships and develop stronger relationship knowledge and skills. A handful of other states have also established similar policies, although the promotion and oversight varies.[9]

Like Utah, Oklahoma has also invested in efforts to strengthen marriage for more than two decades.[10] Throughout these years, Oklahoma has provided marriage and relationship education in a variety of settings, including churches, schools, and prisons. Oklahoma’s main program today is its Family Expectations program in the state’s capital of Oklahoma City.[11] The Family Expectations program is targeted to unwed parents, a population at particular risk of relationship dissolution. The program not only includes a healthy marriage and relationship education course, but it also provides participants with a family support coordinator to help couples with specific needs, like finding employment or working through financial challenges, as unwed parents more often face economic difficulties.

Starting Young

Given the extent of family breakdown in many communities, many youth don’t have examples of healthy marriages in their own homes and sometimes may not even have such examples in their surrounding communities. Less than half of all children spend the entirety of their childhood being raised by their married parents.[12] Even those who are raised in intact families, though, are surrounded by a society that often promotes negative relationship ideas and behaviors.

One way to help prepare the next generation for successful marriages could be through relationship education curricula for youth. This can help set the foundation for healthy dating relationships that can lead to a healthy marriage in adulthood.

Texas has a program for high school students that focuses on the responsibilities of parenthood and the importance of fathers for children. Included in the course are sections that cover topics such as, healthy dating relationships, skills for building strong relationships and marriages, and dating violence.[13]

Utah’s Adult Roles and Responsibilities program is another example of a curriculum for high school students that includes healthy marriage and relationship education.[14] The curriculum includes sections on preparing for a healthy marriage, dating and mate selection, managing conflict, and family finances.

More high schools could implement these types of curricula, as could community colleges and universities.

Media is another way to reach youth, as well as the broader public. Media campaigns, like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as well as campaigns to prevent high school dropout or smoking, could serve as examples to promote messages about avoiding unhealthy relationship behaviors or to promote the benefits of marriage. A substantial share of Americans are unaware or ambivalent about the connection between marriage and human thriving.[15] These types of campaigns should also point people towards further educational resources for learning how to build and maintain healthy relationships. 

Keeping the Faith

Religious participation is associated with a higher likelihood of having a stable marriage, and religious Americans are most likely to be married.[16] Even among the religious, though, marriage has declined.[17] The church is where much family life education has traditionally taken place, but many churches do not have formal marriage education programs or ministries.[18] Church communities could play a significant role in helping bolster couples and families.

Communio is a faith-based organization that assists churches in creating and carrying out healthy marriage and relationship education courses. Communio provides funding and support to churches to help them build and run these types of programs. The idea behind the Communio model is that by embedding marriage education in a faith community, couples are not only given opportunities for learning and developing skills, but they are also provided with a network of support as they navigate challenges in their marriage and family life.

Another way faith communities can bolster marriage is through community marriage policies. In some faith communities, clergy members pledge to require premarital education for couples who marry in their churches.[19] Churches also commit to providing other resources throughout a couple’s marriage, such as marriage enrichment courses or retreats, as well as marriage mentoring.

Shoring Up the Troops

The military is another institution that can help strengthen marriages and family. Military marriages face unique challenges, such as a spouse’s deployment and the physical and mental health issues that can result from exposure to combat.[20] Military family service centers sometimes provide healthy marriage and relationship education. Those not currently providing this type of service should consider doing so.[21]

One of the most effective marriage enrichment programs researchers have evaluated is a program for military couples called PREP for Strong Bonds.[22] In a study published in 2015, researchers found that participants in the program were about half as likely to be divorced two years following the program compared to a control group, a remarkable outcome. Further, minority couples that participated in the program were roughly one-fourth as likely to be divorced, and lower-income couples also experienced greater reduction in divorce compared to those with fewer economic challenges.[23]  

Healing the Reconcilable  

Although divorce rates in the United States have declined, divorce is still relatively high. Research indicates that many couples have thoughts about divorce during the course of their marriage.[24] However, many couples who divorce are in low-distress marriages and are not usually dealing with severe struggles like abuse, addiction, or intense conflict prior to their breakup.[25] Researchers also find that a small but non-trivial number of couples already in the divorce process say they would be interested in reconciliation.[26] Some couples could likely benefit from divorce policies that focus on salvaging reconcilable marriages.

Both Utah and Oklahoma require divorcing couples to participate in a short education course (except in cases of domestic abuse).[27] The courses cover topics such as common reasons couples divorce, how divorce affects children’s well-being, and research on the likelihood of an unhappy marriage improving. Couples are also offered resources to help them reconcile if they are interested in pursuing that path.


These are just a few examples of what states and communities are doing to help strengthen marriages. There are no doubt other creative ways civil society can help people build and strengthen marriage and family relationships.

There are a variety of sources of already available government funding that can be used for programs to strengthen marriage.[28] It would also be in the interest of businesses and communities to put resources into shoring up marriage, given the importance of strong families for thriving societies.

Reversing trends in family breakdown may seem a daunting task. Given the desire many people have for a healthy marriage and family though, there is hope for a brighter future.

[1] Sam Peltzman, “The Socio Political Demography of Happiness,” George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy & the State, Working Paper No. 331, July 12, 2023, (accessed May 3, 2024); W. Bradford Wilcox and Michael Pugh, “Marriage Is Key to Living Your Best Life,” AEI Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility, February 16, 2024, (accessed May 3, 2024); Daniel A. Cox and Ryan Street, “A Loneliness Epidemic? How Marriage, Religion, and Mobility Explain the Generation Gap in Loneliness,” American Enterprise Institute, September 26, 2019, (accessed May 3, 2024); Harvard Health Blog, “The health advantages of marriage,” November 30, 2016, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[2] Brad Wilcox, “Married Parents: One Way to Reduce Child Poverty,” Institute for Family Studies, June 21, 2017, (accessed May 3, 2024); A.J. Sedlak, J. Mettenburg, M. Basena, I. Petta, K. McPherson, A. Greene, and S. Li, (2010), Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4): Report to Congress, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (accessed May 3, 2024); Carolyn J. Hill, Harry J. Holzer, and Henry Chen, “Against the Tide: Household Structure, Opportunities, and Outcomes among White and Minority Youth,” W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, April 28, 2009, (accessed May 3, 2024); Jane Anderson, “The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorce,” The Linacre Quarterly 81, no. 4(November 2014): 378-387; Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Frina Lin, Jeremy Majerovitz, and Benjamin Scuderi, “Childhood Environment and Gender Gaps in Adulthood,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 21936, January 2016, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[3] Frank Newport and Joy Wilke, “Most in U.S. Want Marriage, but Its Importance Has Dropped,” Gallup, August 2, 2013, (accessed May 3, 2024); Alan J. Hawkins, Jason S. Carroll, Anne Marie Wright Jones, and Spencer L. James, “Capstones vs. Cornerstones: Is Marrying Later Always Better?” The National Marriage Project, 2022, (accessed May 3, 2024); Robert VerBruggen, “How Much of Gen Z Will be Unmarried at 40?” Institute for Family Studies, October 29, 2020, (accessed May 3, 2024);

[4] Rachel Sheffield and Scott Winship, “The Demise of the Happy Two-Parent Home,” U.S. Joint Economic Committee, July 23, 2020, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[5] Rachel Sheffield, “Building a Happy Home: Marriage Education as a Tool to Strengthen Families,” U.S. Joint Economic Committee,, (accessed May 3, 2024); Rachel Sheffield, “Promoting Stable Marriages and Healthy Families: A Guide for States,” The Heritage Foundation, November15, 2023, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[6] Rachel Sheffield, “25 Years of Healthy Marriage in Utah: State Commission Strengthens Institution,” The Daily Signal, November 17, 2023, (accessed May 3, 2024); Rachel Sheffield, “Promoting Stable Marriages and Healthy Families: A Guide for States.”

[7] See Alan J. Hawkins, The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships (North Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).

[8] Stronger Marriage, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[9] Alan J. Hawkins and Tiffany L. Clyde, “Do Premarital Education Promotion Policies Work?” Institute for Family Studies, April 29, 2019, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[10] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Human Services Policy, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative,” December 2008, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[11] Family Expectations, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[12] Marripedia, State of the Family in America, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[13] Alan J. Hawkins, The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships, 122-123.

[14] Utah Education Network, “Adult Roles and Responsibilities, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[15] Rachel Sheffield, “The Growing Ignorance of the Benefits of Marriage­­–and Why It’s Dangerous,” The Daily Signal, January 12, 2024, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[16] Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Religious Service Attendance, Marriage, and Health,” Institute for Family Studies, November 29, 2016, (accessed May 3, 2024); Brian J. Willoughby, “Marriage is Increasingly an Institution of the Highly Religious: Why That Might Be a Problem,” Institute for Family Studies, September 13, 2022, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[17] Author calculations using General Social Survey data.

[18] Communio, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[19] Paul Birch, Stan E. Weed, and Joseph Olsen, “Assessing the Impact of Community Marriage Policies on the County Divorce Rates,” The Institute for Research and Evaluation, March 2004, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[20] Elizabeth Allen, Scott Stanley, Galena Rhoades, and Howard Markman, “PREP for Strong Bonds: A Review of Outcomes from a Randomized Clinical Trial,” Contemporary Family Therapy 37, no. 3(September 2015): 232-246.

[21] Military OneSource, “Marriage Enrichment Programs,” March 29, 2022, (accessed May 3, 2024).

[22] “PREP” is an acronym for “Prevention and Relationship Education Program.”

[23] Scott M. Stanley et al., “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Relationship Education in the U.S. Army: 2-Year Outcomes,” Family Relations 63, no. 4(October 2014): 482-495.

[24] Alan J. Hawkins, “What Are They Thinking? A National Survey of Married Individuals Who Are Thinking About Divorce,” The National Divorce Decision-Making Project, Family Studies Center, Brigham Young University, (2015), (accessed May 3, 2024).

[25] Paul R. Amato and Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott, “A Comparison of High- and Low-Distress Marriages That End in Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and Family 69, no. 3(August 2007): 621-638.

[26] William J. Doherty, Brian J. Willoughby, and Bruce Peterson, “Interest in Marital Reconciliation among Divorcing Parents,” Family Court Review 49, no. 2(April 2011): 313-321.

[27] Utah State Courts, “Required Classes for Parents (Divorce, custody, & temporary separation cases),” (accessed May 3, 2024); JUSTIA US Law, “2018 Oklahoma Statutes Title 43. Marriage and Family §43-107.2. Actions where minor child involved – Court-ordered educational program,” (accessed May 3, 2024).

[28] Rachel Sheffield, “Promoting Stable Marriages and Healthy Families: A Guide for States.”