Can Government Rescue Marriages?
Scott M. Stanley & Howard J.
Center for Marital and Family Studies
University of Denver and
There is a trend sweeping the country to make changes in legal
codes to strengthen and stabilize marriages. There are two key
thrusts emerging in state legislatures: the first involves changes
in laws that would make it harder for couples to divorce; the
second involves efforts to encourage or mandate couples to
participate in premarital counseling.
It is hardly debatable that many of society's ills can be traced
to the continuing high rates of marital distress and divorce. While
divorce rates have fallen from the all time high in 1979, couples
marrying for the first time today still have a 40-50 percent chance
of divorce. Further, the links between poorly handled marital
conflict and adverse psychological outcomes for adults and children
are very strong--stronger, in fact, than the links between divorce
and such outcomes. Added to these psychological outcomes of marital
conflict, there are increasingly clear sociological effects of
family fragmentation, including increased poverty, crime, and
alienation between parents and children.
While strange bedfellows, there is a growing consensus among
both liberal and conservative political and religious leaders that
something must be done. Nevertheless, we believe that some of the
trends in legal initiatives represent hurried solutions that could
lead to serious unintended negative consequences.
New Fault, No Fault
The chief aim of initiatives to make divorce more
difficult is to get couples to work harder at making their
marriages work, and to reduce the degree to which society
collectively thinks of marriages as disposable. As part of this
movement, many state assemblies (e.g., Michigan, Georgia, Illinois,
Virginia, and others) are considering the reintroduction of fault
into divorce proceedings, or introducing longer waiting periods
and/or requiring pre-divorce counseling. For most couples, it will
be "too little too late." Most people do not file for divorce or
even seriously entertain the idea until the marriage quality is
severely eroded. These issues can be understood in the context of
our research on commitment.
Commitment encompasses two related but different concepts:
Dedication and Constraint. Dedication refers to the intrinsic
devotion of one to another, and it is evidenced by thinking as a
team, desiring a future together, placing a high priority on the
relationship, and protecting the marriage from attractive
alternatives. Constraint refers more to forces that tend to keep
people committed when they might want to leave: e.g., children,
limited financial resources, social pressure, moral beliefs about
divorce, and the difficulty of the steps to end a marriage.
Essentially, the legal steps to reintroduce fault in divorce
proceedings or to increase waiting times enhance constraint
commitment. Making it harder to end a marriage would very likely
make divorce a less attractive option. And there is some evidence
that when people perceive their options as less attractive, they
are more likely to work harder at making their present relationship
work. These are the intended, positive aims of such initiatives.
However, such measures may actually increase resentment and the
sense of being trapped. In the worst cases, such changes could help
keep some marriages together that both conservative and liberals
would agree are hugely destructive for adults and children (e.g.,
battering situations). Moreover, it is possible that such measures
could have the unintended negative consequence of fewer people
choosing to marry in the first place--thereby undermining the very
institution the laws are designed to strengthen.
Whether or not making divorce more difficult is good family law
(the issues are very complex), the superior goal would be to do all
we can as a society to support and encourage increased dedication
to spouses and marriage. Perhaps divorce laws are too liberal.
Perhaps it should be less easy to cast off a marriage. Either way,
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.
The Move To Mandate Premarital Counseling
Following closely on the heels of the legislative
movement to make divorce harder is the movement to make marriages
better by mandating premarital counseling as a requirement for
obtaining a marriage license. Some states are considering an
incentive model, with longer delays for getting a license unless a
couple gets premarital counseling (e.g., Maryland and Michigan) or
by giving a tax break (e.g., Iowa), while other states (e.g.,
Minnesota and Mississippi) are considering an outright mandate for
premarital counseling. The intention is to help couples increase
their odds for successful marriage from the start. The good news is
that couples can learn to have better marriages. The bad news is
that government force could lead to unintended negative
The Good News: Reducing Marital Distress and Divorce Is
Our studies show that marital failure is predictable to a
surprising degree--with up to 90 percent accuracy in classification
of future outcomes for research samples, using only premarital
data. Hence, for many couples the seeds of divorce are present
prior to marriage. The factors that predict marital failure range
from relatively static dimensions, such as history of parental
divorce and differences in religion, to more dynamic dimensions
such as communication and conflict management patterns. The dynamic
factors make the most attractive targets for premarital counseling
because these factors are both highly predictive of divorce and
amenable to change. In essence, it is not how much couples love
each other, but how they handle conflict that best predicts future
marital distress or divorce--and conflict is inevitable.
Added to the prediction research, studies on our Prevention and
Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) strongly suggest that
couples can learn skills and enhance ways of thinking--prior to
marriage--that significantly improve their odds of having good
marriages. We and our colleagues in Germany have tracked the
positive effects of such training for years following the marriage
ceremony, with better communication, greater satisfaction, 50%
lower break-up rates, and 50% lower incidence of physical
The Bad News: Possible Unintended Negative Consequences
Trying to prevent marital distress is hardly
controversial. The controversy is whether or not governments should
force it on a broad scale. Government mandated premarital
counseling may have serious negative effects that are not being
First, many segments of society are averse to increasing
governmental intervention in family life. The fact that it is
harder to get a driver's license than a marriage license is often
mentioned in this debate, but getting a marriage license is
different. Sure, there are areas of personal behavior where most
would agree that the government should intrude and some areas where
the issue is highly controversial. But are people really going to
accept the government's intrusion into marriage any more than they
want the government telling them how to raise their children?
Second, mandating premarital counseling would be a bureaucratic
nightmare. There would be endless debates about what should be
required and who is qualified to provide the training. Further, we
note that premarital counseling is most often conducted by
religious institutions. Since government mandates usually come with
government standards, mandating premarital counseling could allow
the government unprecedented regulatory control over processes that
are currently and preeminently the province of religious
institutions. This is a significant 1st amendment concern.
Some will note that many religious institutions have been
mandating premarital counseling for years, so what's wrong with the
government doing it, too? Since religious institutions often are
more deeply embedded in the lives and culture of people than
government is, they can likely mandate without the same degree of
negative consequences. After all, the idea is consistent with a
degree of accountability within the community of faith. It is also
not unusual for military institutions to mandate such training as a
requirement for chapel based marriages. However, since there is a
preexisting education and training mentality--as in religious
institutions--this probably works more positively than a
broader-based government effort could.
Third, we are concerned that there are virtually no data on the
effectiveness of mandated programs while there is steadily growing
evidence on the effectiveness when couples volunteer for such
programs. We do hope, over time, to have better data on the effects
of mandating premarital and marital training within both religious
and military institutions.
Given the possible negatives of various initiatives to
strengthen the institution of marriage, we argue for a less
complicated path until we have had more discussion and research on
the effects of the alternatives.
Public Education: A Better Way That Works
Legal strategies to make divorce harder or mandate
premarital preparation may well work. On the other hand, some of
the changes being contemplated may cause negative consequences
despite the good intentions. If we had to choose today, programs
oriented toward government incentives have more appeal than do
government mandates. Further, attempting to bring greater delay to
divorce proceedings (without encouraging opportunities for
increased legal conflict) may well slow some couples down from what
could be impulsive decisions toward divorce. Our key point is that
couples and governments can tend to seek premature solutions to
complex problems when those solutions may fail or increase
frustration and conflict. While the problems cry out for solutions,
more discussion of, and research on, the legal initiatives may be
the wiser course.
This does not mean that we, as a society, have no means to begin
tackling these problems. The most immediately effective strategies
may lie in the field of education rather than in legislation. With
a growing national consensus, a large scale public health education
campaign could bring together educators, clergy, mental health
professionals, and politicians to focus on two key goals: 1) To
extol strong and happy marriages as a high value and a high
priority, and 2) to encourage couples to take advantage of
effective tools to make their marriages not just more stable, but
Regarding the first goal, the institution of marriage does not
seem to be held in as high of public esteem as it used to be. This
can be changed if a wide range of influential voices join together
in saying there is something special and beneficial about marriage.
As importantly, the second goal is directed at helping couples
build better marriages in the first place. This, after all, is
really the goal behind all these competing ideas and philosophies.
Can a society transform beliefs and patterns?
We have been fairly successful in waging an assault on the
deadly habit of smoking, and, to some degree, on eating habits.
While there has been some regulation adding to the effect, the
greatest reductions in smoking seem to have come from the
combination of an increasingly negative portrayal for the habit in
the media and direct efforts to educate people about the
debilitating effects. The next great challenge is to change
relationship habits--and there may well be even more riding on the
What if marriages were portrayed more widely in the media as as
worthy of effort, with positive images and models of people working
things out in their marriages? A greater number of religious
organizations could emphasize the value of premarital training, or
even make it mandatory. The government could encourage public
service messages that promote marriage and that teach a skill or
two about more effective ways to make marriages good.
We are talking about values here. Values that say marriage is
important. Values that say working to resolve differences is good.
Values that say preparing for marriage is wise. Values that lead to
increased dedication for the task of building strong and happy
marriages. These things can be done if we have the collective will.
Let's get to it.
Drs. Stanley and Markman direct the Center for Marital and
Family Studies at the University of Denver, and co-authored the
book Fighting for Your Marriage, (1994; Jossey-Bass, Inc.).