Love and marriage: Effects of premarital education promotion policies on divorce rates

Love and marriage: Effects of premarital education promotion policies on divorce rates

Premarital education policies do not necessarily reduce divorce rates partly due to poor policy implementation. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2020, Vol. 26, No. 1, 105–120

The effects of premarital education promotion policies on U.S. divorce rates


Tiffany L. Clyde, Brigham Young University
Jocelyn S. Wikle, Brigham Young University
Alan J. Hawkins, Brigham Young University
Spencer L. James, Brigham Young University


Currently, 10 states have enacted policies to promote premarital education and counseling. However, no research has documented whether these policies have actually decreased divorce rates in implementing states. The purpose of this study is to assess the effects of premarital education promotion policies on divorce rates. First, we conducted an implementation study to understand how well each state implemented the policy. A combination of methods was used, including reviewing the legislative documents and archival records, as well as interviewing academics and key persons knowledgeable of the legislation. Following the implementation study, we conducted an evaluation study to analyze the effects of the policies on divorce rates. Divorce rate data were obtained from NCHS National Vital Statistics Reports (1988 –2016) and analyzed using difference-in difference estimation with state fixed effects. The results of the implementation study documented generally poor implementation; most implementing states had little formal, ongoing oversight of policy implementation. Results of the evaluation study suggest that simple passage of legislation was ineffective, but effectively implementing a policy was significantly associated with a .5% decrease in the divorce rate. Follow-up analyses, however, with an event history approach suggested that the policies have not had a discernable impact on divorce rates. We conclude with a discussion of the results of the implementation and evaluation studies and make suggestions for future policy efforts and research.


public policy, divorce, premarital education, marriage

Summary of the Research

“In the United States, approximately 40–50% of first marriages and 60% of second marriages end in divorce. […] Because of the extensive amount of research documenting the negative effects of divorce on individuals, families, and children and the economic impact on communities, states, and nation, some governments have taken a special interest in public policies aimed at reducing family instability. For instance, some states have taken a preventative approach to reducing divorce by implementing premarital education promotion policies. To date, 10 states have passed some form of premarital education promotion policies. These policies encourage engaged couples to participate in premarital education courses to gain knowledge and learn skills to help strengthen the foundations of a marriage.” (p. 105)

“Although previous research has documented the positive effects of participating in premarital education on strengthening marital relationships, no research has documented whether premarital education promotion policies have actually increased the participation rate and subsequently decreased the divorce rate in the implementing states. Accordingly, the purpose of this study is to investigate the effectiveness of premarital education promotion policies on reducing divorce rates.” (p. 105)

“Premarital education promotion policies have coincided with existing policies and community initiatives intended to strengthen marriages and reduce family instability. However, rather than being implemented at a federal level, premarital education promotion policies have been implemented at the state level. Studies suggest that only about one third of couples participate in premarital education or counseling.” (p. 106)

“Although there are slight variations among the statutes, they have much in common. They provide incentives, typically in the form of marriage license discounts, for couples to participate in formal premarital education. The statutes also stipulate a specific number of hours in formal premarital education. There is more variability in the requirements regarding the educational content and who is authorized to provide approved premarital interventions.” (p. 106)

“Premarital education is generally defined as “an educational program with curriculum specifically designed for couples preparing for or seriously considering marriage,” (Clyde, Hawkins, & Willoughby, 2019, p. 3). Although there are differences between premarital education and counseling, the terms are often used interchangeably. (For purposes of brevity, we refer here to these policies as premarital education promotion, but all policies include couple counseling interventions, as well.). […] Both religious and secular forms of premarital education meet the requirements outlined in each state’s legislation to promote premarital education.” (p. 106)

“Government involvement in marriage, which is primarily viewed as a private domain, requires sufficient justification. […] One part of the rationale for government intervention is the idea that policy can promote cultural-level shifts regarding marriage and divorce. More specifically, government involvement in marriage sends the message that healthy marriages matter not only on a personal level, but for society as well.” (pp. 106–107)

“A human service rationale for government involvement in marital matters derives from the considerable evidence that the family instability associated with divorce is, on average, detrimental to children’s well-being. […] The utilitarian and economic rationale for government involvement in marriage and divorce policy derives from the public costs associated with private choices, what economics call “externalities.” […] There is a political consideration, as well. That is, a return to some kind of fault-based divorce does not seem politically feasible because of the overwhelming public acceptance of divorce. A focus, then, on preventing the need for divorce presents a more politically palatable path.” (p. 107)

“A significant body of research suggests that premarital interventions can help couples strengthen communication skills, increase marital satisfaction, and reduce the early risk of divorce. In addition, participating in premarital interventions appears to help some couples identify red flags and make deliberate considerations about the future viability of their marriage. There is also evidence that participation in premarital education is associated with a greater likelihood of seeking couple counseling later on to deal with marital problems, and this association is stronger for low-income couples who face a higher risk for divorce.” (p. 107)

“Conceptually, policy effects of premarital education policies likely operate as a two stage process: Policy Initiation & Implementation -> Increase Premarital Education -> Decrease Divorce (Intended Goal). In the first stage, policy initiation needs to be cemented with effective policy implementation to increase premarital education participation. […] Effective implementation leads to greater awareness and availability of premarital education opportunities that may change couples’ likelihood of participating in premarital education. Then, in Stage 2, changes in premarital education participation may strengthen relationships and in turn reduce the incidence of divorce.” (p. 108)

“Despite the rationale presented here, there is still a debate among scholars and policymakers regarding whether government involvement in marriage and family matters is justified and effective. While this study cannot fully answer that broader question, it does have important implications for policymakers and scholars on the narrower question of whether state premarital education promotion policies are effective at reducing divorce. In addition, this study contributes to the ongoing push for evidence-based policy.” (p. 108)

“To assess the effects of premarital education promotion policies designed to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce, we employed difference-in-difference estimation. Before this set of analyses, however, it was important to assess how effectively premarital education promotion policies have been implemented. Passing legislation without effective implementation of the law is unlikely to produce intended effects.” (p. 108)

The implementation study was done first and included obtaining documentation about implementation. This was followed by conducting evaluation study using annual divorce rates at the state level as an outcome variable of interest.

“The purpose of the implementation study was to understand key features of each of the premarital education promotion policies and to document how well the policies were implemented in each state. Although the implementation study revealed slight variations among the statutes, they have much in common. The policies provide incentives, typically in the form of marriage license fee discounts, for couples who complete formal premarital education or counseling. Moreover, the policies stipulated a specific number of hours in formal premarital education, proof of meeting such requirements, and often the topics required to be covered in the premarital education course or counseling session. The policies also outlined requirements regarding the providers of premarital interventions. We uncovered some ambiguity in a few of the statutes, such as what kinds of premarital interventions meet the requirements.” (p. 115)

“The implementation study highlights several weaknesses in the oversight and implementation of the policies. The purpose of a premarital education promotion policy is to strengthen the foundations of marriages to reduce divorce. Although simply passing legislation can send a significant signal about the value of effective preparation for marriage, still, the full impact of these policies is unlikely to be achieved without effective oversight and careful implementation. Although policy and program evaluation texts describe the need for high-quality policies and programs, they also strongly emphasize the challenge of proper and formal implementation.” (p. 116)

“Despite states’ policy objectives to reduce divorce, we find no detectable effects on divorce rates as a result of policy initiation and implementation, especially after exploring linear time-trend models and an event-study approach where policy leads and lags were added to the model. It is unclear whether the absence of a connection between policy passage and changes in divorce rates results from poor implementation (i.e., a weak first stage of our logic model), no change in premarital education participation rates, or ineffectiveness of the premarital education interventions (i.e., a weak second stage of our logic model).” (p. 116)

“Despite evidence of the positive effects of premarital education, there is still considerable variation in the quality of the wide variety of curricula and approaches to premarital education. Most programs are delivered in faith-based settings that may not use evidence-based curricula. […] Perhaps policy efforts are currently stymied by participation in interventions that need improvements to address contemporary marital issues.” (p. 116)

“In summary, past research has documented the effectiveness of premarital education programs, including reduced early divorce risk, but only a minority of couples invest in them. Ten states have implemented policy efforts to try to take the potential benefits of premarital education to scale. But benefits seen in individual programs do not guarantee the same benefits will be realized in scaled-up programming. And program evaluation studies cannot speak directly to whether policies to disseminate programs actually work; policy-level evaluations are necessary for this.” (p. 118)

“This policy-level evaluation study attempted to examine whether state laws to incent participation in premarital education have produced an intended, key outcome: reduced divorce rates. Although there were limitations to this study and more research is needed, the early evidence is that the policies have not impacted divorce rates. General poor implementation of the policies is a likely contributor to the null effects. Policymakers should give greater attention to effective implementation of premarital education promotion policies to ascertain if they can decrease early divorce rates. And program developers may need to update and strengthen their programs for contemporary couples.” (pp. 118–119)

Translating Research into Practice

“The findings of the implementation and evaluation studies have noteworthy implications for policymakers and scholars. Results of the evaluation study showed no effect on the divorce rate in response to premarital education promotion policies. Given the extensive research documenting the negative effects of divorce on children and adults and the effects of family instability on taxpayers and society, the findings of this study will be disappointing to some. Nevertheless, the findings still have several implications for these policies.” (p. 117)

“For implementing states, additional efforts should be made to increase effectiveness to reap the maximum benefits of the policies. These efforts could include exploring alternative incentives to the marriage license to benefit more couples, assigning an entity responsible for the oversight, quality assurance, and implementation, including advertising and increasing awareness, approving curricula, and creating and maintaining a roster of qualified providers.” (p. 117)

“In addition, implementing states should allocate appropriate funding to help with the oversight and implementation of the policies. Formative and outcome evaluations should be conducted as part of this process. These evaluations can highlight weaknesses in the premarital education offerings and the policies that can lead to appropriate changes in order to help the policy achieve its intended goals.” (pp. 117–118)

Policy makers may want to consider such examples of effective policy implementation as the Utah Marriage Commission and Functional Family Therapy Program as implemented by Washington state.

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Although this study begins to fill a gap in the research about the effectiveness of premarital education promotion policies for reducing early divorce rates in the United States, several areas of research need to be pursued. First, our measure of divorce is an overall divorce rate, not just newlyweds, which is less sensitive to treatment or policy effects. That is, many, if not most, longer-married married couples in the population were not exposed to the treatment. Unfortunately, data on divorce rates for couples in the early years of marriage is hard to find. Having information on divorce rates just for couples in the high-risk divorce years would allow for more precision in estimating the effects of the policy.” (p. 118)

“Moreover, this study was not able to document whether the policies have actually resulted in increased participation rates in premarital education or counseling, a key hypothesized mechanism for achieving the policy goal. Future research should explicitly document this chain of increased participation leading to better preparation for marriage and ultimately to reduced divorce rates.” (p. 118)

“In addition, several important factors could moderate the effectiveness of these policies. For instance, it would be valuable to assess the effects of the policy on couples getting married at younger versus older ages. When couples are less mature, involvement in premarital interventions may be more important. States with larger proportions of couples marrying at earlier ages may benefit the most from these policies. Other demographic factors, such as socioeconomic disadvantage and first versus second marriages, also may impact the effectiveness of premarital education promotion policies, because these couples are at higher risk for divorce.” (p. 118)

“Finally, future research should document other potential outcomes of policy interest that could be associated with greater participation in premarital interventions, such as reducing domestic violence and increasing gender equality.” (p. 118)

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Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.



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