OKLAHOMA CITY – Anna Walker used to leave the house in a huff and go for a drive whenever she got into an argument with her husband. But then the couple got some counseling through an unusual state-run program.
Now they yell less and talk more.
Oklahoma is one of only five states using federal welfare money to try to keep couples together. And Oklahoma's program is by far the largest.
The marriage workshops, which started a couple of months ago and are free and open to anyone, are aimed at what some might consider a surprising problem in this Bible Belt state: Oklahoma has the second-highest divorce rate in the nation, behind Arkansas.
State leaders hope that by reducing broken homes and single-parent households, they can solve a host of other social problems.
Oklahoma set aside $10 million in federal welfare money to pay for the program.
The landmark 1996 federal welfare law included promoting marriage as one of its principal goals, but most states have paid little attention to the issue — partly because there is little evidence as to what works, and partly because many officials are uncomfortable involving government so deeply into people's personal lives.
Congress is set to renew the law this year, with much debate expected on government's role in encouraging marriage. The Bush administration wants to spend up to $300 million to push marriage more aggressively, arguing that children raised by married parents fare better.
Gov. Frank Keating said it is a good use of the federal money, especially with Oklahoma is facing a $350 million budget deficit this year.
"We have a lot of dysfunctional families. We have violence and drug abuse and out-of-wedlock births. If we could focus on holding families together, encouraging them not to divorce, then we would spend less taxpayer money on these problems," he said. "That's one of the reasons why we're poor."
Oklahoma has 6.7 divorces per 1,000 residents per year, compared with a national rate of 4.6, according to a 1994 government study cited by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. Among the reasons given for the high divorce rate: Oklahomans are poor and marry young — factors that can exert stresses on a marriage.
Oklahoma ranks 43rd in per capita income, at $23,517 in 2000. And people in the Bible Belt are said to marry younger because they are more religious and feel compelled to wed before having sex.
Walker and her husband of 18 months, Donald, have some marital risk factors, including different religious faiths and children from previous marriages. The arguments began early in their marriage.
"We couldn't even talk about it," said Anna Walker, a 42-year-old Head Start teacher. "I got so mad I just left and drove around. I finally came back, but we could have avoided a lot of heartache if we could have used this technique."
She and her 47-year-old husband, a sewer worker, learned a non-confrontational communication technique at one of the 12-hour workshops.
Couples were taught to listen to a spouse's viewpoint, repeat it back, agree on the nature of the problem, then sit down and try to solve it.
Hundreds of marriage-skills workshops are planned around the state in the coming year.
Arizona, Michigan, Utah and West Virginia also have marriage initiatives that are paid for out of federal welfare funds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The next-largest program after Oklahoma's is Arizona's, at $1.5 million, the organization said.
In Oklahoma, critics have questioned some of the expenditures, such as $3,800 paid to consultants to arrange a media photo opportunity during which pastors signed a pledge to work harder to stop divorce.
And lawmakers recently rejected a bill backed by the governor that would have given couples the option of entering into so-called covenant marriages, requiring them to stay together except in cases of abuse, adultery or abandonment.
"I just have a real problem with government mandates and government intrusion into something as private as marriage," said state Sen. Brad Henry, a Democrat.
Howard Hendrick, state welfare director and head of the marriage initiative, said there is a limit to what the state can or should do to keep families together.
"People can change, but we're not interested in promoting an unsafe marriage or a domestic violent environment," he said. "There are situations where people need to get out, but the research indicates that is a small minority of the divorces that are occurring."