There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the 50 percent (give or take) divorce rate and the damage that it does to children.
Most of us agree that divorce isn’t something that should be entered into lightly — especially if we have young kids — but most of us believe it needs to be an option because sometimes a marriage just isn’t going to work and staying together for the kids isn’t healthy.
For some, the answer is clear — make divorce harder to get. And there’s a movement to do that, spearheaded by attorney Beverly Willett, who details her five-year battle to stop her then-husband from divorcing her and why she wants to help others avoid her fate. As head of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, she is the leader in the proposed Parental Divorce Reduction Act, which should give anyone who is thinking about marrying a reason to pause.
Never heard of it? Perhaps that’s good, but it’s time to pay attention. The proposed law’s goal is to “reduce unnecessary divorce, avoid serious lifelong consequences for children, and save taxpayers billions of dollars.”
One has to wonder what “unnecessary divorce” means — and who gets to determine what’s “unnecessary” and what’s “necessary,” just as one would have to wonder whose interest are we truly caring about, kids’ or taxpayers’?
I don’t doubt that, given her own experience, Willett wants to help; many of us who have gone through a divorce have agonized how that will impact our children (and it really is about kids; while we feel for all couples who divorce, if you don’t have kids, many — wrongly — don’t consider you a family and no one is going to fight to keep your marriage intact).
But is making a divorce harder to get the right way to reduce the divorce rate?
Willett’s law would require parents of minor kids to:
- take four to eight hours of state Secretary of Human Services-approved classroom marriage education instruction plus two hours online module addressing the negative effects of divorce on children and adults, and teaching skills necessary for healthy relationships; the couples are responsible for the “nominal fee of no more than $200”
- an eight-month “reconciliation and reflection period” that begins as soon as each spouse completes the curriculum and receives a certificate of completion (if one party refused, “courts have the power to order compliance”); after that, a couple is free to file for divorce
To me, her approach is backwards. It’s like making it harder for people who don’t have health insurance to get to the emergency room so they’ll learn to take better care of their health. That’s convoluted thinking. By the time a couple is ready to file for divorce, few are feeling loving and generous enough with their soon-to-be-ex spouse to try and work it out. And, if they end up divorcing anyway, there’s nothing in the proposed legislation to teach them how to effectively co-parent — the No. 1 determining factor in whether the kids do OK or not after a divorce, along with having equal, meaningful time with both parents.
That’s a bad law.
Shouldn’t the marriage education and relationship-skills classes come before marriage and kids? Of course! We need to help people marry smarter, and that’s what Susan Pease Gadoua and I are hoping to accomplish with our project, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers, Among the many marital models we have is a Parenting Marriage, an agreement a couple enters into before marrying in which they commit to staying married until the last child leaves for college (with an option to continue to renew their contract if they wish). That holds the couple accountable for their actions, not forcing them to behave (and by whose standards?) after the fact.
If we make divorce harder, I predict more couples may opt to cohabit instead of marry — and research on cohabiting parents with kids hasn’t been promising, as children often are subjected to several live-in partners. Worse, they may even resort to violence or abandonment, two of the few exemptions accepted from the law.
Instead of using government to force people to behave — which rarely works well — why not provide people with the tools they need to get along? Teach people how to co-parent, push for mediation and collaborative divorce, and change the family court system, which is a mess and often hurts fathers (and thus their kids). And, let divorcing parents know that it’s their actions post-divorce that determine whether their kids do OK or not; “‘no fault’ does not mean ‘no responsibility.’”
But if couples really, really want to stick to their vows, there already is system in place to do that: Covenant marriages, which requires counseling before getting married and before getting a divorce (which can only occur if there’s abuse, felony, adultery, abandonment or long periods of separation). In other words, it’s a mash-up of what Susan and I propose and what Willett’s law demands.
Only three states offer this stricter marriage agreement, Arkansas, Arizona and Louisiana. How popular is it? Arkansas, which has about 40,000 marriages a year, has one of the nation’s highest divorce rate — 6.5 per 1,000 population — yet few are embracing covenant marriage. In 2005, just 600 chose a covenant-marriage license. In Arizona, just a fourth of one percent opt for a covenant marriage, while in Louisiana, about 1 percent of the nearly 400,000 marriages a year are covenant.
If nothing else, that is proof that most of us, despite good intentions to marry until death do us part, want an out.
Even the Smart Marriages Coalition, a now-defunct professional group of marriage educators, was against government intervention in divorce.
Divorce laws do not cause divorce — the real problem is the low quality marital relationships that lead to decisions to divorce. The force of law can make divorce harder, but such laws do not teach couples how to build great marriages.
While I understand the concern Willett and her supporters have to help children, the impact of divorce does not appear to have consistent effects across all children and across all ages. The real problem, experts say, is parental conflict; one study found that 66 percent of parental interactions after the divorce were marked by anger and conflict. It’s the conflict, not the divorce itself, that leads to behavioral and emotional problems for the kids . What divorcing parents need is help being better co-parents — married or not, once you have kids, you remain a parent and your relationship never truly ends. And, kids need meaningful and sustained time with both parents.
What do you think we need — a law that makes divorce harder, or marital models to marry smarter and support for couples who, despite their best efforts to salvage their marriage, end up divorced anyway?