Marriage is declining in popularity: USA Today reported that marriage rates in 2013 reached the lowest point in more than a century. Both social and fiscal conservatives are worried about the effects on parenting, poverty, and the growth of government.
In response to the decline of marriage, lawmakers have considered various policies. The latest idea, from Colorado, is a ballot initiative that would require engaged couples to undergo premarital counseling before tying the knot. While there’s no doubt that voluntary premarital counseling is correlated with stronger, longer-lasting marriages, voters in Colorado should not make counseling mandatory.
Personally, I count myself as an advocate for couples counseling, both before and during the marriage years. It’s helpful to have a third party (such as a minister or counselor) to ask the right questions and help couples mediate or avoid conflict.
My fiancé and I are meeting regularly now with our pastor to discuss a variety of topics including our views on spirituality and faith, parenting, sex, money, home management and joint decision-making. Although we’ve dated for several years, we wanted to be intentional in our approach to marriage. To us, it’s not just a love relationship, but it’s an agreement to create a life together. To do the latter, we have to share some values and frameworks for living.
Not only is premarital counseling fun (I think so!), but research shows that it is also smart. Couples who receive counseling before their wedding day have a divorce rate 31 percent lower than those who don’t, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Family Psychology. This study showed that the benefits of counseling extended to people across class, racial, ethnic, income and religious lines.
But one shortcoming of social science is that researchers can’t correct for self-selection. To truly determine the effect of mandatory counseling, we would have to randomly assign some couples to a test group and a control group, and then compare results. Otherwise, we simply have a case of correlation, not causation.
The impact of self-selection in this case may be very strong: Couples who want and seek out premarital counseling may share a confounding variable in common – namely, the desire to prepare for a practical and stable marriage. That desire can’t be taught in several hours of premarital counseling. It is absorbed culturally.
Marriage education (or mis-education) starts in the homes and the communities where we grow up. We watch our parents and other couples relate to each other and take cues from them. The media and larger culture contributes as well: We formulate opinions about the institution of marriage – why it exists, what it entails, and why it’s important (or not). But this process starts long before we get engaged.
The ballot initiative proposed in Colorado comes with several downsides: It requires a minimum of ten hours of counseling, and couples must pay for the counseling. When we consider how cohabitation is largely replacing marriage, these requirements seem like a deterrent to marriage, rather than an encouragement.
Furthermore, the government has no place putting together a one-size-fits-all premarital curriculum. Couples with different backgrounds and beliefs should be free to work with counselors who can meet their individualized preferences.
The good news is that diverse avenues to premarital counseling already exist, and often couples can complete the counseling for free and on their own schedules. Churches offer this service (many require it!), and other private counseling services offer non-religious premarital counseling.
Of course proponents of this ballot initiative mean well. The goal is to focus engaged couples on important conversations they should have before starting a life together, and this is a worthy goal. But just because a personal decision is wise doesn’t mean it should be mandatory. This misses the underlying issue: To have a rewarding and long-lasting marriage, both partners have to invest their time, efforts, and hearts in the endeavor. Government requirements can’t make that choice for us.