THE BLOG
08/27/2013 05:34 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

Is Forever Feasible?

Despite news reports that marriage is in deep trouble in the U.S., Brigham Young University Professor Alan J. Hawkins says that marriage is not dead. In fact, Hawkins believes that even "forever" is feasible through implementation of a series of affordable, state-run educational initiatives. That's the premise of his latest book, The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships, along with a step-by-step plan for getting there.

A professor of family life, for decades Hawkins has been researching and writing about marriage education, the importance of fathers, and government initiatives to sustain healthy marriages as well as a guidebook for couples on the brink of divorce.

I've been following Alan's work for a few years now and interviewed him recently to find out why he's so optimistic about the future of marriage and his vision for reversing family instability in America.

Why did you write this book?
More than half of first births in our country are to unmarried couples who will struggle to hold their family together. That -- and divorce -- make family instability the most important social problem of our time. That's saying something given the wide range of social problems that exist --intergenerational poverty, diminishing educational performance and opportunities, drug and alcohol addiction, to name a few. Sure, less poverty and better education and recovery services for addicts will make more fertile ground for healthy romantic relationships and more stable marriages. But it's equally true that family instability contributes significantly to poorer outcomes for children of these unstable unions, not to mention the adults themselves. I think there are some feasible things we can do to decrease family instability. That's why I wrote this book.

Marriage is dying off, or at least that's what some people are saying, haven't you heard? And you're going to facilitate "forever?"
If it's dead, explain why nearly all American youth and young adults still aspire to a healthy, life-long marriage, why 80-90 percent of all adults still marry at some time, and about two-thirds of adults age 35-44 are currently married. The research shows how beneficial good marriages are to adults, children, and communities. But the work of achieving that life goal has perhaps never been harder, especially for less advantaged Americans.

So what's your grand plan for fixing marriage and relationships?
Well, I'm not sure how "grand" my plan is; it's pretty basic. Scholars and therapists know a lot about how to form and sustain healthy relationships, but we need to get that knowledge out of academia's ivory towers and clinician's wood-paneled offices to the public, especially to less educated young people who are at much greater risk for churning, unhealthy romantic relationships.

Over the past decade lawmakers and policy makers have begun to experiment with ways to do this. In my book, I document how state and federal governments have invested nearly $800 million over the past decade in supporting educational programs, targeted especially to less educated and lower income individuals, to explore whether these programs can help them form more stable families.

Can you be more specific about your proposal?
I'm proposing public support for a series of voluntary educational programs to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages. This isn't therapy, one-on-one work with a trained counselor working on specific, big problems. This is education -- how to have a healthy relationship, communication and problem-solving skills, things like that. It's trying to build a better fence at the top of the cliff rather than funding more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff.

But we need to start early, in the adolescent and young adult years, with relationship literacy education to help young people understand better their desired destination and the relationship rules of the road to help them achieve their family aspirations. Many young people today begin to run off the road when they get the crucial success sequence wrong (get an education, then get married, then have children). Children whose parents have not followed this life course sequence are, on average, at much greater risk for poverty and poorer outcomes. But most of these young, unmarried parents still yearn to make things work for the sake of their children. So I think we also need to provide them with what I call relationship development education to help them assess their relationship, strengthen their commitment, and improve the quality of the relationship so that more can achieve their dreams of a loving, stable family.

Then, when couples make that commitment to marriage, we need to provide them effective marriage preparation education to help them build a stronger foundation for marriage with, for instance, better communication and problem-solving skills. And in the process we will also help a few couples come to realize that they are making a poor decision and prevent a future divorce.

Multiple doses of well-designed marriage and relationship education at critical points along the early life course will get more young people to their desired destination of a happy and stable marriage and improve the odds for their children.

What's the track record like for the programs that exist so far?
The research is mixed. Lower income individuals are coming to these programs in significant numbers and they say they benefit from them. Some research has found these programs help to increase family stability and some have found that they don't seem to make a difference over the long run. The pessimists see the stresses and strains that lower income couples face and doubt that a little relationship education can overcome these challenges. The optimists -- myself included -- see encouraging signs in the early research -- better communication and problem-solving skills, stronger commitment to working on the relationship, and greater family stability. Optimists like me think over the next few years we will see significant improvements in these first-generation programs and expect that future rigorous research will show even stronger and more consistent results. In the same way that we have built safer and more efficient cars over the past generation, I think we will build better educational programs to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages.

Isn't this going to cost a fortune?
No. We can support these educational opportunities with current resources. And they can be delivered through existing educational infrastructures in our communities already working at reaching young and needy populations. The major purposes behind our welfare program -- Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF -- already include strengthening marriages and increasing the number of children growing up in stable, two-parent families.

I am advocating for states to set aside just 1 percent of their TANF funds that already come from the federal government and invest those funds in an integrated series of preventative educational services. Only a couple of states have been doing something like this (OK, UT), so we need to find ways to encourage more states to get on board. If we can't set aside 1 percent of TANF funds to try to prevent the relationship churning that is a major contributor to poverty in our society, then how serious are we about helping needy families? I am also calling for states to set aside $10-20 of each marriage license fee to fund these initiatives. A lean staff of dedicated civil servants and a passionate advisory board of expert volunteers can provide strategic direction for this state-by-state public policy agenda.

I can already hear the chorus of critics telling the government to get out of their bedrooms.
I devote a whole chapter of my book to those concerns. And you're right. Some people do see this kind of government support as intrusive in our personal lives. But family instability is already incredibly costly to taxpayers. Plus when families are unstable, it necessarily inserts government deeply into our personal lives. These programs can actually prevent government intrusion.

Others critics argue that less educated and lower income couples don't need relationship education to form and sustain good marriages; they need a good economy and good jobs, better education and healthcare, more access to services to deal with addictions, etc. I agree that policy efforts to improve the social ecology of romantic relationships will make it easier for couples to form and sustain healthy marriages. But it's not like the nickels and dimes being used to support these educational programs are detracting significantly from the massive amounts of funds being invested in policy efforts to improve the opportunities for disadvantaged Americans. According to my research, we've been spending, on average, about $60 million a year over the last decade, maybe closer to $75 million a year over the last few years. In comparison, in 2006 we spent $1.3 billion on Medicaid family planning services. We spend billions each year on Head Start, employment assistance programs, and so forth. The kind of money being spent on educational programs to help couples form stable, healthy families is a fraction of 1 percent of all the funds we spend to try to alleviate poverty. Why would we ignore a known, significant cause of poverty -- relationship instability -- if there's something we can do about it? Let's look at the empirical evidence that is emerging. By the way, it is pretty unusual to launch a new policy initiative and also start to evaluate it right away. We're doing that in this case, and that is something I appreciate a lot.

Don't some scholars think we're going overboard with this marriage is disappearing hysteria and that we'll eventually see a flourishing of many functional family forms?
Yes. But I guess I'm less patient. When do we get to see the functional? Children exposed to the kinds of family instability that we have seen over the last 40 years in our society are not flourishing. They are at greater risk for experiencing a whole range of problems. I struggle with the idea that these problems will just go away in a generation or two if we're patient. Most of the diverse family forms that we are seeing look much poorer in terms of relationship quality and they are much less stable. These affect children negatively. I think "marital cooling" is as real a problem as global warming.

Any last thoughts?
Forever is still the dream of virtually all Americans regardless of their social and economic circumstances. But getting and staying on the road to forever is probably more challenging than it has ever been. Successful navigation of that road provides tremendous personal benefits for children and adults and strengthens the communities they live in. I think I have a feasible agenda that we can implement right now that will help many more achieve their dream, for their sake, but especially for their children.