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Conditions are ripe for marital strife in Oklahoma, where divorce comes sweeping down the plains.

Malena Lott February 9th, 2011

Love may be a many-splendored thing, but in Oklahoma, love often turns into a country song, à la Tammy Wynette’s 1968 No. 1 hit, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Unfortunately for Oklahoma, as the decades roll by, the state can’t seem to get out of the top-five ranking for highest divorce rates in the U.

Yet, it’s not for lack of trying. In 1998, then-Gov. Frank Keating wanted to tackle the embarrassing (and costly) ranking by pledging to reduce the divorce rate by one-third by 2010. The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative resulted, which has helped thousands of Oklahomans since its inception in 1999 with relationship education for every age and life stage.

Did they reach Keating’s lofty goal? Short answer: no. But according to Kendy Cox, the director of service delivery for OMI, they got wise to realistic goal-setting with the help of some of the world’s top researchers.

“They said, ‘You are trying. This is something huge and you are swimming upstream and have a very little chance.’ They’ve been advising us over time with what strategy and what kind of services at what time. The goal wasn’t achievable, but it’s still a worthy mission and still complicated,” Cox said.

She reiterated what national statistics like the Pew Research Center and the National Health Interview Survey are showing: Nationally, marriage rates are going down. People are marrying later in life, and there is a big correlation between education, the economy and the age of persons first married. In that case, the perfect storm continues to blow in Oklahoma: We are ranked among the lowest median ages for first marriage in the country (24 for women; 26 for men); we are among the lowest ranked in college graduates; and, of course, poverty continues to be pervasive, especially in rural Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s median household income in 2008 was about 18 percent, or $9,000, less than the national median household income, ranking 43rd in the nation.

With the health care reform debate still brewing, it’s important to note that Oklahoma ranks in the bottom 10 states in the percentage of its population that lacks health insurance, according to 2009 census data. Medical emergencies quickly can put average Oklahomans into poverty, and financial stress is a leading cause of divorce.

On a positive note, last year Forbes ranked Oklahoma City as the most affordable city in which to live, taking into account our low unemployment rate (6.3 percent), good jobs and low cost of living. So what gives?


Anita Walker, a clinical therapist and licensed professional counselor in marriage and family therapy at Transforming Lives Counseling Center in Edmond, explains.

“Money is a big issue. Life is very expensive. You may be able to afford your house, but you may (financially) overcommit in other areas, such as giving the kids everything they want. A lot of stress comes with that: fear of losing your job, house payments, overspending with credit cards. We have a real problem with families handling budgets correctly,” said Walker. Walker said we don’t learn how to make a marriage work or how to raise children, two of the most important things to happen to a family. “Typically, they go back to how they were raised. If they had healthy parents, good. So many people didn’t,” Walker said.

That’s where OMI hopes to make a big impact with programs focused on healthy relationships, first and foremost, and effecting change for future marriages and generations. “We want to bolster relationships along the life cycle,” Cox said, noting the most popular program is the “Forever. For Real.” one-day workshop held in various locations around the state for engaged couples, 20 to 25 times per year. “People think love and marriage is a fairy tale, but while marriages are wonderful, they are difficult, hard work. We talk about real stuff and not fantasy stuff.”

OMI also provides family and relationship courses to teens, hosts “smart singles” workshops to help singles identify patterns and learn relationship skills, and has a Family Expectations class for expecting couples or couples with a baby no older than 3 months.

Walker stresses that communication is key.

“Be open and have fun together. Be best friends and respect each other. Stay connected. Talk every day and plan couple things to do together,” she said.


If the marriage is already in trouble, Walker said it takes commitment on both sides to make things work.

“I can help them identify their problems and come up with solutions, but they have to work on it at home and have trust and respect,” she said. Infidelity doesn’t have to end the marriage if both parties are open to forgiveness, including what led to the cheating, and a willingness to start over, according to Walker.

Life changes resulting from personal growth and maturity don’t have to account for calling it quits, either.

“If one spouse wants to change, the other might be threatened by that, so it’s important to talk through it and support each other,” Walker said. “Differences can become enduring. Help them make their dreams come true.”

If divorce results, hope isn’t lost.

Healthy relationships can exist after legal separation, which is the basis for the co-parenting movement. Coparenting101.org shares the 10 commandments, with No. 1 being, “Resolve conflict without putting kids in the middle.”

Amy Urbach, a purchasing coordinator at LifeChurch and mother of five, experiences shared custody with both her and her husband’s children from their first marriages, and is a co-parenting advocate in Oklahoma City.

“My passion is to help people realize that coparenting means that you don’t have to agree on everything, but to be unified on how we feel about the kids and their relationship with the other parent. No matter how angry or bitter or frustrated you are at the other parent, it can be done,” Urbach said.

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