The Great Divide - 11/26/00
cmfce at his.com
Mon Nov 27 10:57:39 EST 2000
subject: The Great Divide - 11/26/00
from: smart marriages
Features quotes from Nock, Crouch, Sollee and looks at
Community Marriage Policies, covenants and divorce law.
The great divide
The News&Observer Raleigh, NC
Few of us dream of a Las Vegas wedding, but maybe we should. After all,
marriage is one of the biggest gambles most of us will ever take.
With one divorce for every two marriages, the odds are good that a walk down
the aisle will turn into a run for the door.
Those broken marriages exact a high price, for society as well as for the
families involved. With a growing body of research showing the benefits of
marriage - and the drawbacks of divorce - many believe it's time for the
United States' 30-year divorce binge to end.
"I really think people get married too easily and get out of it too easily,"
said the Rev. Jim Ballard, director of counseling at the 12,000-member
Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte. "It seems like you can burn the
toast one week and be out of it the next week. I want to see people think
twice before they get married and think more than twice before they get
He is not the only one thinking that way. A national group of Catholic and
Protestant leaders issued a call this month for churches to do more to
support marriage and reduce the divorce rate. In North Carolina, some
observers expect the new year to bring a renewed push for a
covenant-marriage law, which would let couples choose a marriage that is
harder legally to dissolve.
The state's divorce rate of 4.8 per 1,000 population is 17 percent higher
than the national rate of 4.1 per 1,000 - a gap that has been consistent for
at least 15 years, according to federal and state demographers. Those
numbers may seem confusing because they measure divorces as a percentage of
the entire population. Just keep this in mind: About half the marriages
formed today will end in divorce, based on current trends.
Given those odds, experts say, the time is ripe for public and private
efforts to strengthen the bonds of matrimony. They point out that healthy
marriages benefit everyone - individuals and society alike, but especially
"People in marriages do better in so many ways," said Martha Cox, a
psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and
senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center. "Their
health is better. Their immune system is better. They're less likely to be
in fatal car accidents, less likely to commit suicide. ... Marriage is an
institution we definitely want to support in this country. And I think we
have to find creative ways of doing that."
The simplest way to prevent divorce may be to prevent marriage - at least
until the prospective couple have a chance to think seriously about the
commitment they're making. What's important for a successful marriage,
experts agree, is that the couple have the skills to resolve the
disagreements that are bound to arise when two people spend years together.
But the matrimony system hasn't done a good job of preparing couples before
the wedding, when it could have a major impact.
"Traditional pre-marriage counseling as we've known it hasn't had much
effect," said Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family
and Couples in Washington, D.C. "It's a minister saying, 'This is hard.
Never go to bed angry. You have to do this for the Lord.' That's kind of
like a pep rally before a football game. But you're sending them out onto
the field without one drill, one pass play, one practice. You can use all
this dedication talk, but if you don't give them any skills, it won't work."
Yet can society really hope to provide conflict-resolution skills for a
couple of million marriages a year? Probably not.
So public and private groups across the nation are looking at ways to nudge
couples into taking marriage more seriously. The sharpest nudges are being
doled out in Louisiana and Arizona, which have enacted laws providing for
covenant marriages - Louisiana in 1997 and Arizona a year later.
* * *
A more binding union:
Those who enter a covenant marriage aren't just saying, "I do." They're
saying, "I really do."
A covenant marriage is like signing a prenuptial agreement with the state.
In it, the couple affirm their intent to live as husband and wife forever.
They agree to premarital counseling and commit to take all reasonable
efforts to preserve their marriage. They also limit their right to a
divorce. In general, divorce in a covenant marriage requires proof of
adultery, physical abuse or a felony criminal conviction; however, couples
also can get a divorce if they have been legally separated for two years.
The general idea is to make it difficult to get divorced and to make it
impossible for one spouse to end the marriage unilaterally, absent
extraordinary circumstances. In any event, it's much harder than getting a
standard no-fault divorce.
So far, no covenant-marriage bill has been introduced in the North Carolina
legislature, though more than 20 other states have considered such laws. In
Louisiana and Arizona, about 3 percent of marriages now are covenant
It's too soon to tell whether that low rate will pick up or even how well
the laws are working, but one academic who is studying the issue says
preliminary findings are encouraging.
"Before getting married in those two states now, couples have to ask a
question they didn't have to ask before, and that is: How strict a marriage
do we want to enter into?" said Steven Nock, a University of Virginia
sociology professor who is one year into a five-year study that includes
extensive interviews with 1,500 newlyweds, half in covenant marriages and
half in traditional ones.
"What we're finding is that, in being forced to answer that question, they
are being forced into a discussion of some serious issues that they didn't
have to address before. It leads to some interesting conversations about why
you would want one or the other. It's too early to know, but I suspect those
conversations are happening more frequently now. And some small percentage
of those couples might decide that marriage is not for them."
Nock's surveys show that only about 40 percent of adults in Louisiana and
Arizona know about the option, despite laws requiring that information on
covenant marriage be made available.
"We're finding that very few people know about it," he said. "But we find
that about 15 percent of those in standard marriages tell us that they might
have opted for a covenant marriage had they known about it." By contrast, he
said, only about 2 percent of those in covenant marriages say they wish they
had gone the standard route instead.
Nock said about 20 percent of couples disagree about which type of marriage
to enter into. Women are more interested in covenant marriages than men, he
said, with poor women being the most interested. Those choosing covenant
marriages tend to be more traditional and conservative than other couples.
Caryl Rusbult, a psychology professor at UNC-CH who studies commitment, said
the choice of a covenant marriage is likely to strengthen a couple's bond,
for better or for worse.
"In a good relationship, being bound can encourage you to put out the effort
to make it better," she said. "But it can also trap you in a bad
relationship. Highly committed people are more likely to persist in abusive
The small number of couples opting for covenant marriages in the two states
also has fueled some skepticism.
"It's sort of a flash in the pan, probably," said Sanford Braver, a
psychology professor at Arizona State University who studies marriage and
divorce. "I guess I would say that covenant marriage sounded good, but it's
not working out very well - both in terms of catching on in the states that
have it and catching on as an idea in other states."
But a covenant-marriage proposal may be on the horizon in North Carolina.
Bill Brooks, president of the N.C Family Policy Council, said the issue is
likely to come up next year.
His council issued a report on covenant marriage in 1998, without taking a
position for or against it, and Brooks said several state legislators who
were talking about introducing a bill decided to take a wait-and-see
attitude while studying the outcome in Louisiana and Arizona. Now, he said,
some legislators may be ready to move ahead with a covenant-marriage
proposal in the next legislative session.
John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, also predicted renewed
interest in a covenant marriage law for the Tar Heel state.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we had a bill in the next couple of years," he
said. "I don't see a down side to having it on the books. It's a choice
issue. If people want to use it, that's fine. If not, that's fine, too. I
think there are some advantages to having different contractual arrangements
that individuals can choose. This is America - let's have lots of choices."
But both Brooks and Hood said marriages would be better strengthened through
actions in the private sector.
"I don't know if there's going to be as much fruitfulness coming out of a
covenant marriage as with some things coming out of faith- based
organizations," Brooks said.
* * *
'Problem of the heart':
Faith-based approaches are at work in such places as Wilmington; Gillette,
Wyo.; and Grand Rapids, Mich. In these and other communities, Christian
ministers have pledged not to perform marriage ceremonies unless the couple
follow certain steps, such as longer courtships and pre-marital counseling.
"We can do it through our churches, as neighbors and friends, as family
members," Hood said. "If you know there are problems with the breakup of
marriages, which has deleterious effects on society, it's not necessarily a
problem for government - it's a problem of the heart and soul."
Susan Thompson, a Durham lawyer and former Democratic state representative,
is leery of further government involvement in marriage.
"We would all love strong marriages, and people need to think carefully
about what they're getting into," she said. "But I just think you get onto a
slippery slope when you get the government involved in promoting that
personal relationships should be of a particular nature. I think the less
you have the government making these subjective decisions, the better."
Some states have found other ways to affirm the importance of healthy
marriages. High schoolers in North Carolina receive instruction on positive
relationships, though the curriculum does not specifically address marriage.
In Florida, marriage and relationship education is a high school
requirement. And the state will reduce the marriage-license fee and waive
the waiting period for engaged couples who take a four-hour marriage
education course. South Carolina and Texas give discounts on marriage
licenses to those who get premarital counseling. Dozens of other states
either have considered or are considering proposals on premarital
counseling, covenant marriage or tougher divorce laws; few have adopted
But the government actions indicate a widespread change in attitude toward
marriage. During the rise of no-fault divorce, beginning about 1970, the
focus tended to be on the individual who was unhappy in marriage. Now there
seems to be a renewed emphasis on the other stakeholders: children, society
and the other partner, who may not wish to see the marriage dissolved.
When the N.C. legislature recently considered cutting the waiting period for
a divorce from a year to six months, it made for some strange bedfellows in
"It was an interesting coalition: religious groups who were opposed to the
change, and then those of us who have some experience in family law who also
saw some merit in keeping the law as is," said Thompson, the ex-lawmaker.
"There were liberal types who you wouldn't think would come down on that
side of the issue." The proposal ultimately failed.
The shift in attitude may be as significant as any government action in
reshaping people's expectations of marriage.
"If people know the social and legal rules have been changed, I think that
will make people behave differently in their marriage and behave in ways
that will make them more likely to stay together," said John Crouch,
executive director of Americans for Divorce Reform in Arlington, Va. "You
behave differently based on what your options are."
So get ready for more public debate on marriage. Those studying the issue
say it's not likely to go away any time soon.
"Americans are in broad agreement that something should be done to help
families stay together," said Virginia's Nock. "Half of the people in states
where we've conducted research think covenant marriages are a good idea.
There's a widespread movement to use government to support families. This
concern about family values is real."
* * *@#@#
By the numbers:
In North Carolina in 1998:
Greatest number of years a marriage lasted before ending in divorce.
Least number of days a marriage lasted before ending in divorce.
Greatest number of divorces in one month (April)
Least number of divorces in one month (February)
Total number of divorces
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