Perspectives on Covenant Marriage

Alan J. Hawkins Associate Professor of Family Sciences Director, Family Studies Center School of Family Life

350C Spencer W. Kimball Tower Brigham Young University

Published in: "The Family in America," November 1998, Vol. 12, No. 11, pp. 1-8.

Perspectives on Covenant Marriage

In the last year, two states-Louisiana and Arizona-passed legislation creating the option of a covenant marriage, and about 20 more states are considering similar bills. A covenant marriage is a legally recognized form of marriage that differs from the common no-fault-divorce marriage which allows either spouse to terminate the marriage at any time and for virtually any reason. Specifically, a couple that choose to have their civil marriage designated a covenant marriage sign a legal document that attests:

* they believe marriage is a commitment to live together as husband and wife for life; * they have chosen carefully to be married to each other and have disclosed to each other everything that could adversely affect the decision to marry; * they have received premarital counseling; * they promise that if they experience serious marital problems they will take all reasonable measures to preserve their marriage, including marital counseling; * they understand the exclusive grounds for divorce or legal separation under a covenant marriage (i.e., adultery by the other spouse, commission of a felony and imprisonment at hard labor or death, abandonment for one year, physical or sexual abuse of spouse or children, habitual intemperance, living separate and apart for two years or a legal separation for one year; the Louisiana law requires a period of 18 months if a minor child is involved, unless there was abuse).

The couple may receive premarital counseling from either a religious leader or a marriage counselor. Counseling must include a discussion of the features listed above to ensure that there is full understanding of what a covenant marriage is. Of course, counseling may-and likely will-include more than that. In addition, couples already married may go through a similar process to convert their civil marriage to a covenant marriage.

The early data from Louisiana suggest only a small percentage of engaged couples are selecting covenant marriage; the vast majority of covenant marriages are married couples "upgrading" the conventional status of their marriages (Hooten, 1988). However, researchers who have been trying to track these trends in Louisiana have noticed that the rate of engaged couples selecting the covenant marriage option has been increasing, albeit at a low and slow rate. The first few months, it appears only about 1% of engaged couples were choosing covenant marriage; over the last few months, 2-3% have been choosing it. This is likely due to people getting more information about covenant marriage and to religious leaders promoting it more. At this point, no one is hazarding a guess at where this trend will top out, but most scholars I have talked to are not expecting it to exceed 25% for all engaged couples. "Upgrading" from a conventional marriage to a covenant marriage, however, will become a popular choice for many couples, I believe, especially after the inevitable bumps in the road of the first few years of marriage are behind them and as they make the transition to parenthood. I anticipate that converting to a covenant marriage at the time when married couples become parents will be an important trend. Hence, eventually the proportion of couples in states with a covenant marriage law will be significant, even if it is not a majority.

I believe the covenant marriage movement can help strengthen individuals' desires for stable and happy marriages. And in the long run, if enough states adopt similar laws, I believe covenant marriage can make a modest contribution to reducing the high divorce rate. Furthermore, I think the adoption of covenant marriage laws can strengthen the institution of marriage in general in the United States, which will also help to decrease the divorce rate. As a result, individuals, families, communities, and nations all will be stronger as we begin a new century. In this article, I offer a brief explanation for the emergence of a covenant marriage movement and, at greater length, why I think it is a good thing. I write from my perspective as a researcher who is actively involved in studying covenant marriage in Louisiana and Arizona and as a family scientist. In addition, I am influenced by a set of religious values coming from my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon). The views presented here, however, do not necessarily represent either the views of most family scientists or the LDS Church.

The Covenant Marriage Movement

Why have two states already passed covenant marriage legislation and why are many others considering doing so? Some critics see only the religious motives behind the movement. That is, some religious groups are concerned with a weakening of the institution of marriage and want to promote a greater commitment to marriage that is aligned with their religious values about the sanctity of marital relationships. Without question, this has been an important factor in the growing interest and popularity of this movement. The primary author of the Louisiana legislation, Rep. Tony Perkins, did not hide his conservative religious sentiments. The primary sponsor of the covenant marriage legislation in Arizona is a devout Mormon. It is important to note, however, that the reactions to the covenant marriage movement from religious institutions and leaders have been quite diverse (Hooten, 1988; Loconte, 1998). Many evangelical Christian congregations have wholeheartedly embraced the movement and some in Louisiana and Arizona are even considering solemnizing only covenant marriages in their church ceremonies because covenant marriage is more aligned with their teachings on marriage. Many of these churches are also encouraging married couples in their congregations to convert their conventional marriages to covenant marriages.

Conversely, other religious institutions have reacted with some concern. The Roman Catholic church, while expressing appreciation for the motives and objectives of covenant marriage legislation, will not perform covenant marriages within the church. One of the most significant reasons for this is the current requirement in premarital counseling to discuss the limited grounds for divorce; the Catholic church is concerned that discussion of divorce will confuse or obscure church teachings on marriage. Other religious leaders have expressed opposition to the concept of renewed vows or "upgrading" as a denigration of marriage vows which have been faithfully honored (Loconte, 1998). So the reactions of religious institutions, not to mention individual congregants, have differed.

A crucial, additional force behind the covenant marriage movement has come from civil sources. That is, the social and financial costs to local, state, and federal governments of failed marriages and the weakening institution of marriage are staggering. While I am aware of no definitive study that estimates the costs of divorce, we do know that divorce is associated with numerous problems (Amato & Booth, 1997; Popenoe, 1996). Income declines, especially for women. Divorce is one of the most important reasons why women and children fall into poverty and become dependent on federal and state welfare programs. In addition, we know that children who experience the divorce of their parents have reduced educational and occupational achievement, and more behavioral and emotional health problems, as well. Moreover, divorce tears the fabric of civil and stable communities which then leads to other social problems. [Allan: Help: do you have a good citation for this assertion?] It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that divorce is costly to society. Accordingly, governments have a legitimate social and fiscal concern with measures that promote more stable marriages. This was a strong motivation in the passage of the Arizona statute, according to Sen. Peterson, who sponsored the bill (personal communication, April , 1998). The passage of covenant marriage legislation probably has been facilitated as much by a sense of reducing government expenses and promoting the public welfare as it has by conservative religious sentiments.

A third force behind the covenant marriage movement that should not be discounted is a grassroots cultural change: young people seem to be taking marriage vows more seriously than did the previous generation. In other words, many children born in the no-fault-divorce era have experienced the problems of their parents' divorce(s) (or lack of marriage) and want to avoid passing those same experiences on to their own children. Recent articles in such prominent media outlets as Newsweek seem to be documenting that many couples today want to make stronger commitments to their marriages (Hamilton & Wingert, 1998).

Critiques of Covenant Marriage

I believe the covenant marriage movement is an important, positive step, although coming to that conclusion has not been as straightforward as I thought it would be when I initially heard of the idea. I have become aware of some of the concerns about the covenant marriage law from both the ideological left and right. I am unable here respond to every concern at length, but let me briefly address several major concerns and explain why they do not persuade me from my analysis that covenant marriage is a good idea.

Social Pressure. Some opponents, particularly from the ideological left, may be concerned that social pressure to seek a covenant marriage will become too strong and "force" couples into a covenant marriage, undermining the notion of real choice. While I understand this concern, it seems to me that the social norms around dating and mating in the United States are so loose now that it would take an enormous cultural shift to create this kind of social pressure. Couples now generally don't feel social pressure to marry under a no-fault-divorce system rather than live together or to engage in premarital sex (Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991). Therefore, they are unlikely to feel social pressure toward covenant marriage, although it is possible that one partner may pressure the other.

Harder to End Abusive Marriages. Another concern is that covenant marriage will make it harder for abused wives to get out of a marriage; legally proving abuse can be difficult and sometimes treacherous. I do not think this will be the case for two reasons. First, thankfully, our society is more aware and much more condemning of spouse abuse than it was a generation ago. While we still have a long way to go in terms of reducing abuse and dealing effectively with it, I think there is good evidence that we are making important progress and are generally headed in the right direction. Second, under the covenant marriage law, when abuse is evident, divorce is an immediate option; there is no waiting period required. Third, the covenant marriage law provides a "timed out" option for ending the marriage; if "fault" cannot be proven, or a spouse does not wish to do so for some reason, legal separation for a period of time (usually longer than for no-fault divorce marriages) is grounds for divorce.

Legal "Nightmares." Some are understandably concerned that the legal issues could become a real nightmare (LaBauve, 1997). Will Texas and Nevada, for instance, recognize Louisiana's and Arizona's covenant marriage laws and enforce the conditions, or can one hop over the border and get a no-fault divorce, thereby nullifying the covenant marriage? What constitutes "taking all reasonable measures to preserve" the marriage? How much marital counseling is enough before a divorce can be granted? While these are important issues, there is nothing unusual about them to the courts; the standard procedures and remedies that are used to resolve all difficult matters of law are available to handle these and other, similar issues. And future legislation that further clarifies the law will likely be necessary and prudent.

Financial "Hit" for Divorce Lawyers. A less defensible concern about covenant marriage among lawyers is that it may cut into their livelihood by reducing the number of divorces; divorce has become an important source of income for lawyers over the past 30 years. Obviously, such concerns are not voiced publicly, but they are real nonetheless. Law, among many things, is a big business, and its practitioners will not settle easily for something that threatens their livelihood. And lawyers will have a powerful influence on whether covenant marriage is enacted in states and how it is enforced. Hence, while there are legitimate, challenging legal issues surrounding covenant marriage, the public should be aware that the legal profession will have a hard time being objective about its merits because of the financial implications of a potential reduced divorce rate.

Stigmatizing Conventional Marriages. Some may worry that covenant marriage will stigmatize conventional marriage as a lesser form or "marriage lite." It is uncertain what proportion of couples will choose a covenant marriage. Because it is likely in the foreseeable future that a majority of engaged couples will still choose a conventional marriage, it may be unwise to do anything that would weaken the nature of marriage as most people experience it. I agree, obviously, that we should not weaken conventional marriages. But some couples selecting the covenant marriage option will not do this. First, it seems the most dominant ethic in our society is the right of personal choice. Generally, Americans are quite accepting of other people's personal choices, noting that experiences and motives can be complex and difficult to judge. In many ways, people now treat cohabiting couples in ways almost indistinguishable from the ways they treat married couples. Thus, it seems unlikely that people will stigmatize couples in conventional marriages because they did not choose a covenant marriage (Wolfe, 1995). Perhaps more important, however, is that individuals' opinions about the value of covenant marriage are going to be diverse. Some will herald covenant marriage as one step in the right direction because the state is creating more options for intimate relationships that mirror contemporary life styles (opening the door for other kinds of unions to be classified as marriages), while others will support covenant marriage because it appears to be supporting a more traditional form of marriage. Others will oppose it for the reasons articulated in this article. Those from various political and ideological orientations will not be uniform in their opinions of covenant marriage. Similarly, we will find that religious people will be both pro- and anti-covenant marriage. Accordingly, I do not see the basis for the kind of wide agreement that would generate a cultural stigma against conventional marriages. Indeed, if such a stigma were to emerge, I predict it would most likely come from empirical data showing that covenant marriage is, as hoped, effective in preserving marriages. Of course, it will be five to ten years before researchers will have the data to address the outcomes of covenant marriage.

Contract vs. Status and the "Slippery Slope." Similarly, some critics of the Louisiana and Arizona laws, who would otherwise be supportive of stronger marriage laws and divorce reform, may be disappointed because covenant marriage creates two kinds of marriages. These critics might argue that a legal system with two kinds of marriages runs the risk of seeing some people as only partially married, which makes as much sense as some one being partially pregnant. In addition, these critics may argue the current laws diminish the notion that marriage is a status rather than a contract, that it is a universal institution created by human society and ordained by God, not something that individuals negotiate the terms of before entering into a legal agreement.

Does creating a second form of marriage unwittingly undermine a traditional concept of marriage? Some conservatives believe it will (Olson, 1997). But the covenant marriage movement seeks to reinforce the moral sentiments of contemporary society that support committed, enduring marriages. Hence, I do not believe that a second marriage option will inadvertantly undermine a natural or divine concept of marriage in most people's minds. Closely related to this concern, however, is one that requires more careful analysis. Does sanctioning a covenant marriage option unwillingly create a legal climate that sets up a "smorgasbord" of marriage choices? If the state can tinker with the concept of marriage to accommodate covenant marriage, what's to stop the state from creating other options, such as "trial marriages" or same-sex marriages? As I talk to legal scholars the answer I get is nothing, legally. So such concerns should not be taken lightly, especially in light of the movement in several states to legally recognize same-sex marriages, which I oppose. Some refer to this issue as the "slippery slope" problem. If we create a second kind of marriage, do we open up the gate to legal arguments for same-sex marriage or other alternatives to marriage? I am not a legal scholar, but it seems the "slippery slope" has existed in some form throughout legal history. Common-law marriages have always been an issue for the state to deal with. More recently, the legal status of cohabitation has been a challenging issue. And some courts and legislatures are now struggling with the issue of whether to sanction homosexual unions.

So, indeed, a slope exists. But there is no legal force that compels us down that slope. The legal definition of marriage has been and will continue to be a political and sociocultural issue; law will generally follow the sociopolitical will. Recall that the opposition to polygamy among the Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) a century ago was based on most people's beliefs that having more than one wife was a fundamental challenge to the divine institution of marriage. The opposition to homosexual marriage today, I believe, is the same; a large majority of Americans see it as a fundamental challenge to a divine or natural law, and thus unacceptable. Changing the definition of marriage to be any two adults rather than a man and a woman is unquestionably an enormous change. Note that covenant marriage, however, does not alter in any way the fundamental nature of marriage. In my view, it only places reasonable and voluntary cautions at the entrance to and exit from marriage, and stimulates greater commitment. The slipperiness of the slope is not a legal issue; it is a social and political issue subject to the moral sentiments of the people. And covenant marriage, it seems to me, is taking a step up the slope, making it less likely that we will slide farther down.

Not Tough Enough/ Symbolic Only. Some supporters of divorce reform in the United States were initially excited about covenant marriage but eventually disheartened with the laws passed in Louisiana and Arizona because they still allowed for unilateral ending of a marriage with young children after a legal separation of 18 months. Some supporters of divorce reform believe that the laws passed in these two states will not go far enough to prevent people leaving their marriages. While I understand this concern, the pragmatics of divorce reform will not allow for a law that severely restricts an individual from leaving a marriage. (And many scholars will argue that such restrictions would be unconstitutional.) Our society is not prepared to accept that at this time. Eventually, I believe, this course of action would erode support for reform. And for reasons that I elaborate on below, I believe maintaining fault-based options for divorce is crucial.

Similarly, some critics may be concerned that there isn't enough bite in the covenant marriage law to achieve its stated aim to reduce the incidence of divorce. Hence, if its purpose is only symbolic, does it make a mockery of the law? Critics are right to assert that we do not know yet how effective covenant marriage will be in reducing the divorce rate. While covenant marriage places voluntary "speed bumps" at the entrance to marriage and a "red light" at the exit, we can not be certain that it will actually reduce the number of marital "smash-ups." But slowing down at the entrance and pausing at the exit to marriage make sense to me. And I believe there are good reasons for optimism about the effects of covenant marriage that justify this kind of experimentation to strengthen marriage.

Reasons for Optimism about Covenant Marriage

Symbolic Power of Law. Specifically, I believe there are five reasons for an optimistic appraisal of covenant marriage, both to improve the quality of many marriages and reduce the incidence of divorce. The first and most important reason, I believe, is the symbolic power of law. Law can symbolize things we value deeply as a society. Changes to divorce laws a generation ago reflected a deep desire at that time to avoid "trapping" individuals in unhappy marriages and a desire for freedom and personal fulfillment. It is debatable whether those desires were facilitated much by changes in the divorce laws. But now, having experienced a generation of high divorce rates and alternatives to marriage, there is an increasing desire for the richness and security that long-term marriage relationships and family stability provide, and for the benefits stable marriages provide society. Not surprisingly, with this desire for stronger marriages comes a recognition that greater commitment to spouses is needed to weather the inevitable turbulence of intimate relationships. I believe the symbolic power of a covenant marriage law will reinforce this desire for stronger marital relationships and a stronger institution of marriage. We can use all the reinforcement we can get these days. I expect that reinforcement of marital commitment to help many couples have stronger marriages in the same way that civil rights legislation a generation ago helped strengthen our desires to live in a society that was free and just for all.

Some have argued that the intent of covenant marriage legislation would be better achieved by reforming divorce laws, making them somewhat more restrictive (LaBauve, 1997). Some divorce reform is probably a good idea. But reform alone will miss the opportunity of bringing the symbolic power of law to bear on the problem of the weakening institution of marriage. Covenant marriage is more than just a revision in contemporary family law. It is an attempt to embody a more workable and, indeed, more moral concept of marriage, one that requires some preparation, lasting commitment, and reasonable cautions to preserve marriages when they hit the rough spots, and that is clear about the immoral behaviors that may disqualify one from the privileges of marriage. Ultimately, the symbolism of covenant marriage will do more to strengthen marriage than the technicalities of legislative reform.

Spirit of Choice. And covenant marriage works in the spirit of choice and not compulsion, which is a second reason I believe the covenant marriage movement to be a positive step for strengthening families. Ultimately, I believe a frontal assault on contemporary marriage and divorce laws will be quixotic and result in little legal change. Earlier covenant marriage legislation introduced in a couple of states (before the Louisiana law passed) were more restrictive and easily defeated. It will not work to legally force individuals into a higher commitment to marriage when they are ambivalent or hostile about the necessity or value of such a commitment. Of course, some individuals just want minimal constraints on their actions. But for others, the source of ambivalence toward a form of marriage that claims it is a life-time commitment and puts stricter conditions before it can be ended can be personal. For instance, some have experienced family breakup and have seen close up how painful an unhappy or abusive marriage can be. While some may see this as a reason for a stronger commitment to making marriage work, others will be more cautious about marital commitment. Thus, offering a choice to those who desire to make stronger commitments to marriage but not forcing others to do so seems to me a pragmatic course of action. And for those who choose a conventional marriage at first, the option of "upgrading" to a covenant marriage may be attractive later on. Admittedly, if only a small percentage choose a covenant marriage, then the purposes of the law--to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce--are unlikely to be achieved. If this turns out to be the case, then other strategies will be needed. But we must be patient and give covenant marriage some time to work its way into the culture. People will be unfamiliar with it and cautious. It may take a decade for people to understand and appreciate it. When they do, I anticipate a healthy proportion will freely choose the bonds of covenant marriage.

Promoting a Cultural Conversation. The passage of law on such an important topic will inevitably draw more media attention to the topic of marriage. I believe most of this attention will be helpful as it focuses on most people's strong desires for good marriages. Marriage is now a hot topic in academic circles; ten years ago it seems it wasn't even on the academic agenda of topics. Academic interest often reflects public concerns. I think marital commitment will become an increasing part of our cultural conversation. We will read more about it in magazines and newspapers and popular books. We will see documentaries and programs on television about the value of good marriages. We will talk to our co-workers and friends about marriage and listen to their values and longings. This cultural conversation will filter down to teenagers who will benefit from hearing about the value of long-term, committed relationships, especially if they have not been fortunate to see it up close in their own families. A generation ago, freedom, choice, experimentation, and personal growth dominated the cultural conversation. I sense it is different today. Committed, long-term marriages are "in"; how to achieve this desire is a "hot" topic. Hence there will be a natural curiosity about covenant marriage. People will give it a fair hearing. This cultural conversation will help to strengthen marriage.

Specifying the Moral Grounds for Divorce. Similarly, I believe it is better for the law to specify grounds for divorce rather than making divorce virtually impossible. (Of course some states, including Louisiana, still retain some fault-based provisions for divorce, so covenant marriage is not such a radical change.) Perhaps this sounds "wimpy" and anti-marriage to some. But I believe there is behavior that may disqualify individuals from the privileges and opportunities of a marriage relationship. Marriage ideally should be a sacred relationship. To maintain the sanctity of the marriage relationship, I believe it is important to be specific about the kinds of behavior that are morally repugnant and grounds for terminating the marriage. At the same time, covenant marriage underlines the position that "irreconcilable differences," which is usually code for growing apart or a desire to "graze in other pastures," is not a morally defensible reason for breaking marriage bonds; rather, the law presents them as a responsibility to do all one can to solve problems and renew the relationship.

Encouraging Premarital Education and Counseling. Another reason why I believe covenant marriage to be a positive step is that it will likely help some couples who are considering getting married to think harder about what it takes to have an enduring, happy marriage. When he asks, "Will you marry me?" she is likely to respond, "Which kind?" And just think of the interesting conversations that are more likely to occur before he ever actually "pops" the question. Over time, people will have friends they know who chose covenant marriage and friends who chose conventional marriage. Hence, seriously dating couples are more likely to express their feelings about marital commitment, the meaning of marriage, and other similar issues. Family scholars who study dating and engagement and marriage preparation are always amazed at how naively many couples enter into marriage, even those remarrying. We live in a Hollywood society that portrays love as a magical and mystical process beyond our control; it happens or it doesn't. I anticipate covenant marriage will add to an already increasing desire for formal and informal premarital education in both religious and secular settings. Most premarital counseling is provided by religious institutions (Stanley, Markman, St. Peters & Leber, 1995). But often that is focused more on ceremonial matters than what keeps the vows alive after the ceremony (Stanley et al., 1995; Worthington, 1990). Thus, covenant marriage should help increase the quality of premarital counseling provided by religious institutions. Premarital counseling can help many couples get off to a better start in marriage and prevent early divorce by teaching skills that are known to help make a marriage work (Larson & Holman, 1994; Stanley et al., 1995). On occasion, it also helps couples decide that they are not ready for the kind of commitment and sacrifices that are required for a successful marriage.

Promoting Marital Counseling. The quality of premarital education and counseling from both secular and religious sources will vary. And the actual legal requirement for premarital counseling probably can be satisfied in just a brief conversation with a counselor or religious leader. The jury is still out on the general effectiveness of premarital education and counseling. Research indicates it can be helpful to some couples. But because most premarital education and counseling are done in religious institutions and little evaluation research has been done on this population of couples, it is difficult to assert the effectiveness of premarital education and counseling in terms of preventing marital breakup (Stanley et al., 1995). Moreover, it is likely that some couples' rose-colored glasses are just too thick for them to see even the potential for marital problems. Perhaps for these couples premarital education or counseling will not be effective.

Probably more important than premarital education and counseling, then, is the covenant marriage requirement for couples to seek marriage counseling to resolve serious marital problems. This is another reason why I believe the covenant marriage movement is a positive step. Under covenant marriage couples commit to take all reasonable measures to keep their marriage together, including counseling. This requirement may be particularly helpful to men who often resist counseling more than their wives. People have different opinions about the value of marital counseling. It's true that some marriage counselors are quick to pronounce marriages dead and begin divorce counseling. Bill Doherty, an influential marriage and family therapist and current president of the National Council on Family Relations, has been an effective critic of value-neutral marriage counseling. He calls for therapists "to recognize and affirm the moral nature of marital commitment," and to help build "a cultural ethic that would make it just as irresponsible to terminate a marriage without seeking professional help as it would be to let someone die without seeing a physician" (Doherty, 1997, pp. 39-40). The covenant marriage movement will help promote this philosophy. There are many good marriage counselors who subscribe to this philosophy and who will work hard with couples who are experiencing challenging problems. If there is a foundation of commitment, which seems likely in a covenant marriage, there is a good chance the marriage can be preserved. Research has documented the ability of good therapy to help preserve many marriages (Bray & Jouriles, 1995).

To illustrate with an anecdote, I spoke recently with a friend and graduate of our Marriage and Family Therapy program at Brigham Young University. I will call her Kate. During our conversation, Kate recounted to me an inspiring story in her work as a therapist. She had recently received a note from a couple she had helped five years ago in which they expressed their appreciation for her efforts. "Thanks for not giving up on us," the note said. They were doing great. She said that this LDS couple first came to her with a set of common but serious problems. He had returned from his LDS proseletizing mission at the age of 21 and quickly married a young woman whom his parents wanted him to marry. A baby came within a year. He was feeling smothered and regretted his quick marriage and lack of freedom. He began spending most of his time away with friends. She was needy, lonely, and depressed. They sought professional help, but after working with my therapist friend for six months, nothing was getting better. At one critical session, the couple begged the therapist to acknowledge the failure of their marriage and justify their strong, mutual desire to get divorced. "We just can't do it," they said. Kate's trained professionalism covered her natural response: "You're telling me?!" Kate said she was as frustrated as the couple was. At that time she did not have a great deal of clinical experience, did not know what else to do, and felt that there was no way to save this marriage. Perhaps it was time to end marriage counseling and begin divorce counseling. Kate herself had experienced the divorce of her parents growing up and survived. She was no stranger to divorce. But something stopped her natural response. Instead, she gently refused to provide the justification the couple wanted. She appropriately placed the burden back on them. "You are the ones who have to decide to break your covenants," she said. "You are the ones who will have to live with the decision." The couple returned two weeks later. They were strangely affectionate and responsive to each other. The therapist asked for an explanation. The husband responded: "I thought a lot about it. I just decided I was going to be committed to this marriage. That's all." With that commitment, they began working on their challenges. Together with Kate's help they resolved their serious problems. Kate's commitment to the moral nature of the marital relationship and her training helped preserve a marriage at a critical moment when its continuing existence hung in the balance.

Covenant marriage is not a panacea for all the troubles that beset marriages today. And there are legitimate questions about its effects. But because of the symbolic power of a covenant marriage law to reinforce the concept of deep commitment to marriage; because it does so in the spirit of choice; because of the positive cultural conversation on marriage that it is likely to generate; because of the way it will encourage premarital education and counseling; and because it will promote marital counseling before seeking a divorce; for all these reasons, I see the covenant marriage movement as a positive step for strengthening marriages, families, communities, and societies.


These days it is natural to wring our hands over the fragility of the institution of marriage. The gloomy statistics and trends in the United States are well known. Yet in the midst of this gloomy scene are some bright clouds. A good marriage is the strongest predictor of personal happiness and an invaluable support for good parenting. It also an essential basis of strong communities and civil societies. I believe covenant marriage can encourage the kind of commitment and behavior needed to help many couples achieve stronger and happier marriages. As a family researcher, I am excited about the opportunity to observe the covenant marriage movement and how it may help to strengthen marriage.


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Worthington, E. L. (1990). Counseling before marriage. Houston: Word Press. ____________________ Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society 934 North Main Street Rockford, IL 61103-7061

Hawkins, A. J. (1998). Perspectives on covenant marriage. The Family in America, 12(11), 1-8. A publication of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, & Society, 934 North Main Street, Rockford, IL 61103-7061. Used by permission.

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