In March 1999, shortly after announcing the initiative, the governors office convened the Governors and First Ladys Conference on Marriage, bringing together leaders from a variety of public and private sectors around the state to discuss the initiative and pledge support. The event, coordinated by the Secretary and implemented by PSI, was attended by more than 200 individuals from six sectors: business, faith, education, government, social service providers, and media. The response was largely supportive, and the governor called for Health and Human Services to lead the initiative and develop a plan of action.
The first tasks facing the OMI were to define its philosophy for creating broad social change, and identify a reasonable approach for achieving this mission. At the time, there was no evidence to suggest what directions or approaches might be fruitful or what pitfalls might lie ahead. The general philosophy what would serve as the main vehicle for change would evolve over the first few years, as DHS and PSI considered and tried various approaches.
Starting with the faith community. Because a majority of marriages take place in houses of worship, one of the initiatives first activities was to mobilize the faith community. The OMI brought together religious leaders of every major denominations in the state to pledge their support for the initiative, and to seek agreement on a marriage covenant. The covenant outlined minimum requirements related to preparation for marriage that clergy pledged to uphold as part of their agreement to marry a couple in their religious institution. Eventually more than 1,500 faith leaders signed the covenant, and OMI built on this initial network as its work continued. These efforts were intended to serve as a public statement by clergy and the faith community that marriage preparation is important.
Trying a sectoral approach. At the same time, OMI leaders wanted to ensure that support for the initiative would not be limited to the faith sector. They sought to build on the support shown at the governors conference by enlisting representatives of the major sectors of society to develop and initiate activities they thought would support marriage within each of their sectors. Despite relatively high interest and support for the initiative, however, little progress was made. In some sectors, interested groups were uncertain of what action to take. Other sectors that tried to take action faced coordination difficulties, shortage of resources, or a lack of fit between the new initiative and their core missions.
Choosing a vehicle for change. The early challenges that the OMI encountered in what came to be known as the sectoral approach prompted OMI leadership to consider the implementation of a specific intervention that could be more uniformly applied across sectors and regions of the state. They considered two main approaches. First, they discussed using media campaigns to promote the value of marriage and educate the public on its benefits for adults, children, and society as a whole. However, concern was raised by some OMI leaders that this approach would not go far enough to be effective, and that some type of focused services for couples and individuals would be necessary to create not just attitudinal but also behavioral change. As OMI leaders considered direct services, they investigated what those services might entail. Questions were raised about whether traditional marriage counseling would be the best approach, since it is not often used as a preventive approach, and there was concern that couples might resist counseling due to perceptions of stigma or misinformation about the nature of counseling.
A service with potential for broad implementation. In July 1999, OMI leaders attended the annual Smart Marriages conference, which provided an introduction to marriage education. Marriage education refers to a variety of services, programs, and curricula that teach skills and provide information to couples with the goal of helping them prepare for and sustain healthy and satisfying marriages (Dion et al. 2003). These structured, curriculum-based programs seek to prevent marital distress and dissolution by educating couples in relationship skills. They generally take a psycho-educational rather than a therapeutic approach and need not be delivered by professional counselors. Some of these programs are based on a substantial foundation of research.
OMI leadership learned that marriage education services such as these were in short supply in the state, and could be prohibitively expensive for some, especially low-income families. Therefore, selecting a marriage education program and making it widely available to Oklahomans seemed to OMIs leaders to be a concrete and feasible strategy for helping more couples enter and sustain healthy marriages. Because of concern that media campaigns stressing the importance of healthy marriage could stimulate a demand for services that could not be met until capacity was developed, they decided to put the higher priority on creating a mechanism for delivering marriage education services.