When the OMI began, there was no existing menu of broad-based public strategies to affect marriage or divorce rates, so little information was available to guide OMI planners in designing the intervention strategy. OMI leaders first focused on changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce to achieve the states goals, but then decided that the use of skills-based programs to help improve peoples experiences in relationships and marriage might be more useful, especially at first. OMI planners decided to choose a single marriage education curriculum that could be implemented statewide and then closely examined available curricula to select one with a basis in research.
Despite Strong Interest, Sectors Were Unsure How to Promote More Positive Norms for the Institution of Marriage. The initial vision for the OMI was to stimulate expressions of support for the institution of marriage across major sectors in the state. This support, by reestablishing more positive norms and attitudes toward marriage, was intended to lead to a reduction in divorce rates. However, it became clear that, despite relatively high interest and support for the initiative, relying on sectors to develop and initiate activities to support marriage would be difficult in the absence of a well-defined strategy. In some sectors, interested groups were uncertain of what action to take. Groups who heard presentations by OMIs marriage ambassadors were supportive, but the presentations did not lead to sustained action because it was unclear how they could become involved. Some sectors that tried to take action faced obstacles to coordination, a lack of resources, or a lack of fit with core missions. For instance, initial efforts by the OMI to help the faith sector implement activities to support marriage proved more complicated than first imagined, due to the faith communitys diversity and lack of experience working together. Some of the states business leaders and foundations contributed funds to support the OMI, but businesses were uncomfortable addressing marriage and intimate relationships in the workplace.
Some Leaders Suggested that Implementing Services to Improve Marriages Might Provide a More Concrete and Effective Strategy. In addition to these challenges, some supporters wondered whether efforts to change norms and attitudes could, by themselves, achieve the broad changes sought by the OMI. They suggested instead that services to help marriages succeed, such as premarital education or counseling, would be necessary to create behavior change. OMI leaders soon realized that the availability of such services in the state was low. They also were concerned that the services that were available might not be suitable for the goals of the initiative. For example, DHS expected that marriage counseling could be hard to find or prohibitively expensive for some, especially the low-income families the agency served. Questions also were raised about whether traditional counseling was the best approach, since it did not address preparation for marriage. In addition, there were concerns that couples might be resistant to entering counseling due to perceived stigma or misinformation.
In response to concerns about the need for and availability of appropriate services, the OMI leadership began to seek alternative approaches. A new idea started to take shape when OMI leaders learned that instruction in relationship skills could help people prepare for and sustain marriage. In July 1999, as the OMI was beginning, its leaders attended a conference focused on what is now known as marriage education. The annual Smart Marriages conference(5) provided information and resources for the OMI, and insight into an emerging grassroots movement to support and sustain marriage.
The OMI Began to Focus on Marriage Education as its Primary Intervention. 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.(6) These structured, curriculum-based programs seek to prevent marital distress and dissolution by educating couples on the skills needed to develop and maintain relationships. Some existing programs are based on a substantial foundation of research, and need not be delivered by professional counselors. Through Smart Marriages and other avenues, such as professional or continuing education programs, professional practitioners and clergy, as well as some nonprofessionals, are trained to deliver a variety of programs and curricula that have been developed over the past 30 years. 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.
To Ease Statewide Implementation, Create Consistency, and Ensure the Use of Research-Based Materials, Oklahoma Selected a Single Marriage Education Curriculum. In January 2001, after a thorough search of literature and research on curriculum effectiveness, Oklahoma Marriage Initiative staff selected the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) as its core curriculum. PREPs developers, Drs. Howard Markman and Scott Stanley, were well known to academics and professionals in the marriage, relationship, and counseling fields, which enhanced acceptance of the OMIs marriage education strategy among those groups. OMI leaders also anticipated that using a single curriculum would simplify the process of adapting materials for alternative settings and audiences. In addition, the curriculum had been subjected to scientific evaluation to determine its effectiveness.