A DOZEN young couples recently spent a cold Monday evening in a conference room in downtown Oklahoma City, answering tricky questions about their relationships, such as who their partner’s family most resembles: the Simpsons, the Addams Family or the cosily suburban Cleavers from “Leave it to Beaver”? Such lightheartedness had a serious aim: getting the couples to think about each other and improving their ability to communicate.
The couples—all new or expectant parents, none of them married—were taking part in a workshop run by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI), a programme that aims to help Oklahomans build and sustain healthy marriages. Since 1999 OMI has served more than 315,000 people. It is the largest and longest-running of its kind, and probably the most successful. Still, the workshop’s leader, Boston Snowden, told his charges, “We’re not trying to make you get married. We’re trying to show you there’s research that shows that there are definitely a lot of benefits to marriage, so we want to point those out.”
As Mr Snowden’s careful phrasing suggests, the politics of marriage promotion is tricky. Some bristle even at the phrase “marriage promotion”, hearing in it browbeaten sinners being forced into church and down the aisle. One of OMI’s board members, a social scientist from a Democratic state, said that “marriage promotion gets the ire of left-leaning individuals who see it as really connected to the [George W.] Bush administration.”
Mr Bush’s Health and Human Services Department did indeed launch the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which financed an array of activities designed to encourage marriage. But federal marriage-promotion precedes that presidency: the 1996 welfare-reform bill (signed into law by Bill Clinton, a Democrat, but largely the work of a Republican Congress) called marriage “an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children”, and said that “prevention of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and reduction in out-of-wedlock births” are “very important government interests”.
Republicans are hardly alone in valuing marriage. A Pew poll taken in 2010 showed that 61% of adults who have never been married want to be; only 12% do not. A poll of high-school seniors taken in 2006 showed that 81% of them expected to get married, and 90% of those expected to stay married to the same person for life. Wedding-themed reality TV shows (“My Fair Wedding”, “Say Yes to the Dress”) abound.