by McKell Jorgensen and Alan J. Hawkins
The Bottom Line First: A community-wide, religious-sector effort to increase participation in marriage and relationship education services in Jacksonville, Florida, appears to have reduced the divorce rate there by nearly 30%, 3 times more than in the rest of Florida. And a new initiative wants to fund other community efforts to replicate these results.
Although research shows that relationship (RE) education can help couples strengthen their marriages, only a few studies have shown a solid impact on divorce rates. Couples who are struggling in their marriage occupy a lot of chairs and love seats in RE programs. Helping a few strengthen their relationships and maybe even avoid divorce is a rewarding accomplishment and keeps relationship educators energized. Relationship educators are pretty practical folk, however, believing that if they can reach just a few couples and help them strengthen their relationship, it’s worth their efforts.
But what if they could reach more than a few? What if they could saturate a community with RE resources? Could RE make a larger impact than for just a few couples? And, importantly, could it have a measurable impact on community divorce rates?
That’s what a recent study, presented at the 2018 National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education conference, set out to test. The study tried to evaluate the impact of the Culture of Freedom Initiative (COFI) in the Jacksonville, Florida, area, which aimed to saturate the area with RE services. The study examined whether the initiative reduced the county’s divorce rate.
COFI worked mainly through churches in this Bible-belt community and had a strong coordinating organization leading the initiative (Live the Life). The organization helped churches build up and publicize their RE services, including premarital education, marriage enrichment programs, and an intensive program for couples thinking seriously about divorce called “Hope Weekend.” It’s important to note that COFI had substantial funding through a philanthropic organization.
So, what did this study find?
- Over two years, COFI efforts helped to put 22,000 people through RE efforts in the Jacksonville area (Duval County). And publicity tried to target those at most risk for divorce.
- The divorce rates in Duval County and the rest of Florida were almost identical in 2015, but . . .
- The divorce rate in the Jacksonville area fell by almost 30% in the first two years of the project (2015-2017) to a record low. The divorce rate in the rest of Florida fell by just 8% in that same time period. (For various reasons, divorce rates nation-wide have been going down slightly.)
- Thus, Jacksonville saw more than 3 times the decrease in divorce as the rest of Florida. This was the greatest decrease in any of the 31 Florida counties (with populations more than 150,000) for nearly 50 years of record keeping.
Impressive! But is this finding real? Is it reliable? Several noted researchers reviewed the study and, with appropriate scholarly qualifications, expressed confidence that the study was capturing a real phenomenon. For instance, sociologists Drs. Brad Wilcox (University of Virginia) and Spencer James (Brigham Young University) said: “Our initial data analysis suggests that the COFI effort . . . has had an exceptional impact on marital stability in Duval County. . . . As family scholars, we have rarely seen changes of this size in family trends over such a short period of time. Although it is possible that some other factor besides COFI’s intervention also helped, we think this is unlikely. In our professional opinion, given the available evidence, the efforts undertaken by COFI in Jacksonville appear to have had a marked effect on the divorce rate in Duval County.”
Here are some implications of the project:
- Think religious sector. Many churches promote healthy marriages and often provide RE services. And research suggests that religious providers can be just as effective as secular, university-based providers. We can do more when we work with the religious sector. Churches also provide a network of individuals ready for RE and trusting of the services offered. It’s easier to recruit and retain participants. It’s even possible that group dynamics in these religious settings increase the effectiveness of these RE programs because participants may know other participants better and support each other’s efforts outside of class. And relationship skills taught may be effectively supported by religious principles. (We can’t say right now whether community-saturation initiatives like COFI would be successful working through secular providers. That needs to be tested with more research.)
- Think community/culture (not just couple). Program administrators and relationship educators can think about their services differently. Rather than just finding couples to come to programs, make RE part of the community. Saturate the area with programs and awareness; create a culture of RE. This can help build an understanding that normal people seek out this kind of help and combat any stigma associated with attending RE classes.
- Think website. Create a website that has information about all RE programs in the community and advertise the site. Being able to find and compare information in one place will help keep community members in the know. Or, make use of a current national website (USmarriage.org); add your community’s information to it.
- Think big. Taking on big demographic trends like divorce can seem like a fool’s errand. But maybe impacting the divorce rate isn’t so daunting. Jacksonville’s experience suggests that we can impact this trend one community at a time. And the COFI model can be straightforwardly replicated.
This study has not been published yet; it needs peer review and, most importantly, replication. Here is the good news about that. Dennis Stoica, one of the primary figures behind the Jacksonville community marriage initiative, wants to assist other communities to replicate this model. And even better news: A fund has been set up to support further efforts to implement and test this model. The mission of the Community Marriage Initiatives Fund is to promote, encourage, and support community-wide implementation of Marriage Ministries that deliver relationship education services as a way to reduce county-wide divorce rates. The Fund’s target is to distribute up to twenty grants per year, of between $10,000 to $20,000 each, to non-profit organizations who are interested in attempting to implement the model that is successfully being used in Jacksonville with the goal of significantly reducing their own county’s divorce rate. Interested individuals and organizations can contact Dennis Stoica at: Dennis@MarriageInitiatives.org
 Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723-734.
 Hahlweg, K., & Richter, D. (2010). Prevention and marital instability and distress: Results of an 11-year longitudinal follow-up study. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 48, 377–383; Stanley, S., Rhoades, G., Loew, B., Allen, E., Carter, S., Osborne, L., Prentice, D., & Markman, H. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the U.S. Army: 2-year outcomes. Family Relations, 63 482-495; also see the ACF study: “Parents and Children Together: Effects of two healthy marriage programs for low-income couples,” which we blogged about here.
 Bradford, A., Hawkins, A. J., & Acker, J. (2015). If we build it, they will come: Exploring policy and practice implications of public support for couple and relationship education for lower income and relationally distressed couples. Family Process, 54, 639-654.
 Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Prado, L. M., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., Tonelli, L., St. Peters, M., Leber, B. D., Bobulinski, M., Cordova, A., & Whitton, S. W. (2001). Community based premarital prevention: Clergy and lay leaders on the front lines. Family Relations, 50, 67–76; Markman, H. J., et al. (2001). Use of an empirically based marriage education program by religious organizations: Results of a dissemination trial. Family Relations, 53, 504-512.