SALT LAKE CITY — Statistics about marriage and divorce are the backbone of research for social scientists.

"We live and breathe these kinds of data. I think they're very important for us," said Dean Busby, a professor in Brigham Young University's School of Family Life.

But when those numbers make the news, the impact they have on the general public isn't as clear.

"We hear divorce statistics over and over," said Nick Wolfinger, a University of Utah professor of family and consumer studies. "Is that depressing? Yes. But my response is always 'What are you going to do about it?'"

Whether an alarming statistic about divorce is a call to action or feeds the slippery slope toward a breakup isn't clear, he said.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released "Marital Events of Americans: 2009," which says marriage rates in Utah are higher than the national average. For Utahns, that is not news. Divorce rates in Utah are also higher, but since one has to marry to become a candidate for divorce, the higher divorce rate is statistically predictable and follows similar marriage-divorce trends in the other parts of the country, Wolfinger said.

Giving couples better relationship tools before they marry is an emphasis in both the academic and religious communities. But working with soon-to-be-marrieds can be a challenge — because they're in such a positive state of mind, Busby said, adding that he uses the term "La La Land" a lot when describing those with marriage on the horizon.

Busby leads the RELATE Institute at BYU, which provides research-based questionnaires couples can take to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in their relationship. "The evidence to date suggests that 30 to 40 percent of couples participate in some kind of premarital education," he said.

Women are more likely than men to initiate some kind of premarital education. The proliferation of online dating services and their surveys boosts the comfort level in taking an online relationship review. Face-to-face counseling is still the most daunting, Busby said.

Evaluating the benefits of premarital education is among Busby's current research projects. He said he is also interested in finding ways to make education opportunities more available to those with lower incomes, where divorce rates tend to be the highest.

Catholic couples planning a church wedding are required to complete a premarital counseling program that spans four months. That program gives couples an opportunity to address family, spiritual, income, education and other relationship factors up front, said Veola Burchett, family and pro-life director for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

"Our goal is to minimize divorce and to strengthen families and strengthen marriages," she said.

Burchett said she has seen couples postpone marriage dates until issues they discover are resolved. "We even have couples come through the program and decide not to get married." She said study results indicate couples who have premarital training are more likely to seek professional help, and seek it earlier, if there is trouble during the marriage.

Cultural factors definitely weigh in on the level of support the institution of marriage sees. Utah's Mormon culture factors strongly into the support for marriage, as does the growing Hispanic community, "where the rites of marriage are very high," said Pam Perlich, a University of Utah research economist. Within a community, individuals reinforce what is already their cultural predisposition.

Even though the most recent Census data reaches back to 2009 for its conclusions, that information is combined with other data to form real-time anthropology projects that help the social scientists identify trends, Perlich said. "Not every data set has every person represented in it. Putting together all of these different data sets, we begin to understand more about the cultures around us."

Researchers also had other observations about the analysis of marriage and divorce:

• Busby said the federal government's interest in the importance of marriage has grown over the past 10 years because of marriage's impact on public policy. Areas of the country with higher divorce rates receive more funding for marriage education services. Funding that helps children combat the adverse affects of parents who divorce is now outstripped by the needs of children born outside marriage. An increase in the number of couples who have children without marrying results in a decrease in the number of households that factor in to marriage and divorce statistics, which means marriage and divorce data represent a shrinking portion of society.

• Wolfinger said there are many reasons couples form a household without marrying, and that many co-habitation relationships are short-lived or involve couples who wouldn't be able to marry. "Marriage rates haven't declined all that much. Ninety percent (of couples) still get married," he said. The federal government spent a lot of money promoting marriage a decade ago, Wolfinger said, and that divorce reform was a bigger political issue then. "By 2004 that was gone. Gay marriage had totally pushed divorce out of the picture" in the political arena.

• Burchett said the "Catholic Engaged Encountered" program is going through a global revamp that should take shape around the first of next year. "They have basically ripped the whole outline apart and redid the whole thing."

• A RELATE Institute report says age at marriage has consistently been found to be highly related to later marital quality. Teenage marriages are considerably less stable than those that take place when couples are in their early to mid-20s, but that couples who marry for the first time too far beyond that can have problems as well. "The concern here is whether or not these individuals can be flexible enough in their preferred style of living to adjust to another's persons needs and preferences."

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