Rebinding the Ties That Bind: Government Efforts to Preserve and Promote Marriage*

Article excerpt

Governmental efforts to strengthen marriage through a variety of approaches have become increasingly common in the last decade. Societal trends related to family formation, marriage, and divorce have shaped interest in marriage and its stability as a social institution. The public sector has targeted efforts at key stages in the life history of the family system, including preparation for marriage, formation of marriage, rights and responsibilities within marriage, and dissolution of marriage. Particular governmental approaches to preserving and promoting marriage in these contexts are reviewed and discussed, and implications for practitioners and policy/makers are outlined.

Key Words: family policy, government, marriage, marriage education.

Although the 20th century had social and political movements that focused on such issues as civil rights and women's advancement, the dawn of the 21st century saw the birth of a new social phenomenon gathering support across the American political spectrum: the movement to strengthen marriage as a fundamental institution. At the heart of the marriage movement is a growing sentiment among persons ranging from family scholars to government officials to faith community leaders that "the core social and personal challenge of our time is how to make loving, permanent marriage work for ourselves and our children" (Doherty, 2001, p. 7). This sentiment rests largely upon the social realities affecting the stability of marriage today, including high divorce rates, increased rates of cohabitation, and a declining marriage rate (Popenoe & Whitehead, 1999a). Additionally, research findings suggest the value of healthy marriages for child well-being, for adult social and emotional health, and for economic and societal stability (e.g., Amato & Booth, 1997; Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Though marriage as a public issue faces challenges due to concerns regarding biased ideological agendas, stigmatization of the unmarried, or intrusion into private affairs (Ooms, 1998), it is becoming increasingly common for government officials and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels to target proposals toward strengthening marriage.

The purpose of our article is to provide a structured overview of governmental approaches to strengthening marital relationships and the innovations occurring in this context. First, we discuss the societal trends related to family formation, marriage, and divorce that have shaped interest in marriage as a social institution. Next, we use key stages in family development to highlight public sector efforts related to the preparation for marriage, formation of marriage, rights and responsibilities within marriage, and dissolution of marriage. We also review the implications of governmental efforts to strengthen marriage for practitioners and policymakers concerned with family life, because governmental efforts have the potential to significantly shape the future development of marriage and couples education and family policymaking.

Trends in Family Life Affecting Marriage in the United States

A rationale for government efforts to strengthen marriage does not divide easily along political or ideological lines. Some progressive scholars and policymakers support an effort to make marital strengthening a higher priority in family policy as a matter of social justice (e.g., Ooms, 2001). Conservative scholars and policymakers embrace strengthening marriage and families as ways to provide social benefits to individuals without increasing government intervention (e.g., Horn, 2003). Still others who address this issue are wary of inserting government policy into an arena of life that requires sensitivity (Jarchow, 2003b). Yet, research suggests that families tend to be more successful in creating "competency and character in their members" when they have the assistance of outside forces, including "responsive government" (Bogenschneider, 2002, p. …


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