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New classes help those getting ready to marry
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In 2006, 1,119 couples walked down the aisle in Hall County. That same year, 872 county residents filed for divorce.

For that reason, the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center wants you to think twice about marriage.

The center has teamed up with the University of Georgia to offer marriage coaching that promotes healthy marriages and families in Northeast Georgia communities. The center has made the Healthy Marriage Initiative easily accessible to residents of nine North Georgia counties, especially those with low-to-moderate incomes.

The Healthy Marriage Initiative aims to reduce the divorce rate, incidents of domestic violence and the out-of-wedlock birth rate by providing about eight hours of group or individual counseling sessions for committed couples using a plan that certified marriage counselors have used for nearly 30 years.

The counseling qualifies engaged couples to waive the fees associated with acquiring a marriage certificate under a 3-year-old state law. The initiative is part of the center’s efforts to promote financially stable families in the community, since divorce is one of the biggest strains on someone’s financial well-being, Community Service Center Director Phillippa Lewis-Moss said.

The Community Service Center recently received a grant that will pay for 50 low-income couples to participate in its Healthy Marriage Initiative for the next three months, and about 20 couples have benefited from the grant already, Lewis-Moss said.

In order to receive free counseling, couples must meet the Housing and Urban Development’s definition of low-to-moderate income, a definition that varies by county, Lewis-Moss said.

Usually, the Community Service Center only opens its services to Hall County residents, but because the initiative is funded by the state Department of Community Affairs, Lewis-Moss and the UGA Extension agents opened it to residents of surrounding counties as well.

Of the total grant money awarded, Hall County received about 30 percent of the money the DCA provided for the marriage initiative in the state, Lewis-Moss said. "Hall County did quite well in terms of accessing a good portion of funds that were available," Lewis-Moss said.

Couples who do not qualify for free counseling can still benefit from the program, however, and pay a fee based on their income levels. Lewis-Moss said most people pay about $15 for the center’s counseling services.

"If you consider the economic impact of divorce, $15 to $0 is really quite minor in comparison," Lewis-Moss said.

Lewis-Moss said the taxpayer cost of divorce and unwed child bearing in Georgia, including justice system expenditures and programs related to child and family services, is about $1.4 billion.

The idea for the initiative came from conversations between Lewis-Moss and UGA Extension state specialists about the economic impact of divorce and other marriage and family issues. Soon after the discussions began, a grant opportunity related to the issues "fell from the sky," Lewis-Moss said. "When you have these conversations, the funding opportunity isn’t always present, and sometimes you lose momentum and the conversation dies," Lewis-Moss said. "In this case, the timing was perfect and it was a natural progression from having these occasional meetings and actually having a program."

In order to make the coaching sessions accessible to almost anyone, the center will work with couples with transportation challenges and child care needs.

"We’ve done a lot to ensure that there are no barriers to people participating in this program," Lewis-Moss said.

Certified marriage counselors will conduct the coaching sessions, many of which are scheduled on the weekends, using the PREPARE curriculum by Life Innovations Inc. Couples will undergo a precounseling screening, with each individual answering questions about the couple’s satisfaction with their relationship, modes of conflict resolution and opinions on religion, career decisions and finances.

The answers will guide conversations that counselors have with the couples in the coaching sessions, Lewis-Moss said.

"I think the self-awareness that takes place during the coaching sessions gives couples an edge in understanding themselves and their partners," Lewis-Moss said.

How often couples agree on topics such as religion, demonstration of affection, intimacy, careers, finances and relatives are key issues in deciding a couple’s compatibility, Lewis-Moss said.

"Those are all key triggers for breakdown; if there is any great disagreement in any of those
areas, there needs to be lots of discussion," she said.

Already the center has held one weekend coaching session, and there are five weekend sessions scheduled between now and September, with one occurring in Athens this weekend.

For now, the program is in a testing period, and Lewis-Moss said the center will determine whether to do it again next year based on this year’s success. But even if couples make the decision against marriage after attending the sessions, Lewis-Moss said it will have been successful in making the couple evaluate the decision.

"A couple who comes to us and makes a decision to marry is as much as a success as the couple that makes the decision that they’re not right for each other and not to marry," she said.

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