Wyoming bill would require counseling before marriage or divorce

With some exceptions, three hours of premarital or pre-divorce counseling would be required. For divorcing couples, it’s good policy, even though it is unlikely to reduce divorce rates. It is much harder to justify the premarital requirement, on either a clinical or policy level.

Boutonniere-whitesuitA bill introduced in this year’s session of the Wyoming state legislature, HB0065, would require couples to attend three hours of premarital counseling before obtaining a marriage license, and three hours of marriage counseling before obtaining a divorce.

While there is little data to suggest that any three-hour process for couples already planning to split up will make much of a dent in the state’s divorce rate, requiring divorce counseling is a good idea for other reasons. Divorce education reduces conflict in the divorce process, particularly where custody is concerned (see this summary of several studies on divorce education for parents), and saves the divorcing couple as well as the public a significant amount of money in the process. Three hours is not an unduly burdensome amount, and the a judge can waive the requirement if the court finds there is “clear and convincing evidence that marital counseling will not lead to a reconciliation of the parties” — an important consideration for victims of relationship violence. Several states have adopted such programs, often similar to one called “Children in the Middle,” with good results.

The premarital counseling requirement is harder to support, either on a policy or scientific level — and this is coming from a guy who specializes in couples work (San Diego marriage counseling) and loves premarital counseling.

There is ample evidence that these relationship education programs improve communication, but it is unclear whether premarital education actually improves relationship satisfaction or stability, and there is virtually no evidence to suggest they actually have a long-term impact on divorce. (That’s primarily due to a lack of data, not studies showing failure.) A recent, thorough review in the journal Family Relations described current research on the very basic question of whether these programs work as “not as settled as program developers and practitioners might assume or like it to be.” There are at least three large-scale, federally-funded demonstration projects of premarital education (Appendix 2) underway now that should provide clearer answers.

In the meantime, these programs continue to grow because they are, in the words of one report, “popular and valued.” And there is some evidence to suggest they have a greater impact on low-income families, who do suffer from higher long-term divorce rates.

But here’s the catch. In the studies that have been done, as well as the large studies underway now, few have suggested that just three hours of education would be enough to even expect an impact. The federally-funded studies use programs of at least 24 hours of education. Most programs utilize at least 12 hours. Anything under eight hours was considered in the Family Relations review to be a “low-dosage” program.

This is why it’s so hard to get behind the premarital requirement in the proposed Wyoming law. I could see requiring 12 hours, and I can certainly understand requiring none. But three hours? It adds a hurdle to marriage, without sufficient reason to believe it will have a lasting positive impact. And while I believe quite strongly that premarital education can be effective, I cannot support requiring an amount of it that is too low to have any likely effect. Wyoming and other states should either require enough premarital education to make a lasting difference, or none at all.

Update: The bill died in its first committee in February 2011.