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Utah's Unique Take on How to Strengthen Marriages

Conference shows that, rather than focusing on divorce, governor wants to work at keeping couples happy.

Utah's marriage conference this weekend was a lot about holding hands.

In one packed room, Joy Lundberg patted her husband, Gary, kindly on the arm and recalled the day they fell in love, holding hands in a movie theater. Her message was simple: People don't fall out of love; they just forget how to love.

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Later, Gov. Mike Leavitt and his wife, Jackie, met the 1,000 or so participants hand-in-hand. High-school sweethearts, they've been married for 25 years, have five children, and still take neighborhood walks together.

The strength of their relationship is a point of pride for Governor Leavitt. For as the nation struggles with news of its president's personal life, Leavitt has been using his own to focus his state's attention on marriage and morality. And his decision to put marriage near the top of his political agenda - through events such as Friday's conference - is a unique attempt to use state resources to keep couples together and happy, rather than simply concentrating on divorce.

A national focus on family has prompted Louisiana, Arizona, and soon possibly Texas to offer covenant marriages, making divorce much more difficult. Other states are considering rescinding no-fault divorce laws to stem the tide of easy divorce. Yet many experts say Leavitt's different approach in this predominantly Mormon, family-oriented state may be an example of how states can target the cause of family problems instead of just dealing with their effects.

"Many states are making divorces more difficult," says Nicholas Wolfinger, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. But "it doesn't make sense to make it harder to get out of a bad marriage.... [The problem] needs to be addressed by social policies."

To this end, Leavitt announced on Friday the formation of a Marriage Commission - the first such state-sponsored group to look at turning marriage-strengthening practices into public policy initiatives.

Elsewhere at the fifth annual conference, called GIFT - the Governor's Initiative on Families Today - couples talked about more personal topics such as overcoming depression and building stronger stepfamilies. Down the hall from the Lundbergs, Brent Barlow, an author and founder of Marriage Advocates of America, exhorted his audience to practice "fast-food communication": Listen to what your partners want, and don't try to talk them out of a greasy Big Mac for their own good.

While most Utahns may agree with the motives behind the governor's initiative, the idea of spending public money for social engineering still rankles some. But in this staunchly Republican state where citizens adopt a "less is more" approach to government, Leavitt defends his conference as a sound financial investment.

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In Utah, divorce and its financial stresses account for 75 percent to 80 percent of the people on welfare rolls. And with a 1994 divorce rate of 4.7 per 1,000 - slightly higher than the national average - Leavitt notes that a huge number of abuse cases arise from dysfunctional families. His approach - which includes the marriage conference and commission - is to get at the root of the problem, he says.

Proclaiming the "economics of goodness," he maintains that "there is an economic equation driven by people keeping their responsibilities and practicing a set of values that will produce a long-term positive social result. Marriage is one of those.... It's about a three-way commitment between a man, a woman, and society."

"Government is formed to take care of the places where people fail," Leavitt adds. "We collectively as taxpayers end up paying when marriages fail."

Utah taxpayers this year spent $150,000 of the $210,000 it took to put on the marriage conference, which has grown substantially from a few couples meeting in the conference center lobby. Now couples pay $35 for two hours of workshops, dinner, dancing till midnight - and of course, holding hands.

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