Can Government Rescue Marriages?

Scott M. Stanley & Howard J. Markman
Center for Marital and Family Studies
University of Denver and
PREP, Inc.
(303) 759-9931 

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 consequences.


The Good News: Reducing Marital Distress and Divorce Is Possible

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 aggression.


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 considered.

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 truly better.

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 outcome.

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.).

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