GAINESVILLE, Fla.—To help strengthen marriage – and reduce divorce rates – the University of Florida extension service has launched a statewide education program to help couples before they tie the knot.
“The 4- to 6-hour training program, dubbed Before You Tie the Knot, helps prepare couples for marriage, and it doesn’t matter how the family is defined,” said Millie Ferrer, interim associate dean for extension with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “The workshop series consists of topics that are very important to anyone who is planning to get married.”
The marriage-prep program, now available in Alachua, Brevard, Duval, Hernando, Madison, Palm Beach, Suwannee and Taylor counties, is being expanded to other counties in the state, she said. Couples who complete the course receive a $32.50 discount on their Florida marriage license fee, and the three-day waiting period before the wedding can take place is waived.
Ferrer said the training program was established in response to Florida’s Marriage Preservation Act that was passed in 1998 to help curb the state’s high divorce rate. Nationwide, nearly half of all first-time marriages end in divorce, and almost 60 percent of all second marriages end in divorce.
In Florida, that translates into an average of 5.3 divorces per thousand people per year compared to the national average of 4.1 divorces per thousand people per year. Arkansas and Nevada have the highest rates, with an average of 6.4 and 8.1 divorces per thousand people per year, respectively.
Ferrer said Florida’s effort to preserve marriages is reaching beyond state boundaries. With an estimated cost to state and federal governments of $30,000 per divorce, other states are developing similar programs. Arizona, California, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah and Tennessee, among others, have either introduced or passed bills to encourage pre-marital education. Tennessee is also using the UF marriage-prep curriculum.
In Brooksville, Fla., UF Hernando County extension agent Donna Peacock uses role-playing games and other participatory activities in the marriage-prep program. “We call them games, but couples get the point behind the fun,” she said.
Before the program was started, specialists in the UF family, youth and community sciences department examined divorce records to determine what factors contribute to the failure of marriages. “We want our couples to recognize marriage pitfalls before they fall into them,” Peacock said.
“Our research found four topics that were real troublemakers, and we designed the classes around them,” she said. “As a result, we put a lot of emphasis on communication techniques, parenting skills, conflict management and money management.”
Peacock said the classes go right to the heart of troublesome topics. “We can identify areas where couples are going to have problems, and we try to help them become comfortable discussing any topic. Sometimes they realize that marriage is too big of a step to take.
“We had one couple that took the course and decided they weren’t ready to get married. Fourteen months later, they returned, completed the course and got married. They said they were very glad they had waited,” Peacock said.
“The instructors aren’t the only teachers in the class – class members also teach each other. The mix of cultures and ages in a class gives some surprising perspectives,” said Peacock. “Adults in their early 20s, couples in their 40s and older couples on their second marriage can bring a lot of different viewpoints and valuable lessons to the program.”
“Even if one member of a couple is reluctant to take the course, both seem to indicate the course was helpful,” she said. “Although I’d like to think that marriage-prep courses like ours have been responsible for the slight drop in Florida’s divorce rate – the 2002 figures are an average of 5.1 divorces per thousand people per year – a definitive study has not been done. ”
Brenda Williams, a UF Alachua County extension agent who teaches the course in Gainesville, said one of the most popular communication exercises is the “I-message” game. “This is a game where no one finds fault with what you say, because you say ‘I feel…’ We start with actual situations, like buying a new car, and the participant puts it into I-statements.”
Williams said the first part of the statement is to tell your partner how you feel – “I feel uncomfortable.” Then you say what caused that feeling – “when you buy a car without consulting me.” The third part tells your partner why you feel that way – “because I feel neither of us should make big decisions without involving the other.”
She said the approach allows participants to learn how to tell each other how they feel about a topic without sounding accusatory.
“The situations we provide may seem stilted at first, but the exercise has enormous potential for the future,” Williams said. “Now, when one of our program graduates says to his or her partner ‘I feel uncomfortable when…,’ it enables both of them to approach potentially volatile topics in a more rational way.”
Williams said most men aren’t excited about the course when they come in; it’s usually the woman who registers for the couple. “But when they get into the actual course, they find out it’s non-threatening, and they seem to enjoy it.”
She said Before You Tie the Knot is an economical way to forestall divorce, in addition to saving on the expense of a marriage license. The course fee ranges from zero to $10 per couple and is set by UF extension offices in each county.