Sanchez: How to achieve 'happily ever after'
Austin American
February 27, 2009

The majority of Americans hope to get married and live happily ever after.

But the high rate of divorce and the declining rate of marriage suggest
that we might not know how. As with any knowledge deficit, education can
help fill the gap.

During the 2007 legislative session, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa,
introduced a bill to give a discount on marriage licenses to couples who
attend premarital education classes. The bill passed and went into effect
last year.

This session, Chisum is proposing education for couples on the other end
of the marriage spectrum. HB 480 would apply to couples who have minor
children in the home and file for divorce based on the grounds of
insupportability (the category chosen by Texas' couples seeking a no-fault
divorce, he explained to me). Those couples would have to submit with the
divorce petition proof that at least one of them had completed a crisis
marriage education course.

The bill stipulates that the course must be at least 10 hours long and
"include instruction in: 1) conflict management; 2) communication skills;
and 3) forgiveness skills." Chisum told me that because those skills are
beneficial in many aspects of people's lives, the courses wouldn't do any
harm. Moreover, though the bill wouldn't help every couple avoid divorce,
he said, "This is an effort to put as many back together as we can."

Chisum is not trying to trap people in bad marriages. The bill explicitly
waives the education requirement for marriages with violence or abuse,
whether it's mental, emotional, psychological or verbal.

The bill also stipulates that only one partner is required to attend the
class. Thus, a spouse cannot trap the other in the marriage by refusing to
attend. Both partners are encouraged to attend, however, by the bill's
provision that a judge can use a partner's refusal to take the class as a
factor in other aspects of the divorce settlement, such as the division of
the estate.

Chisum's bill seems to have no negatives. At worst, it eats up 10 hours of
someone's time, an amount similar, I would guess, to the average time that
separated spouses spend just in the first month shuttling the children
between their two homes. And if their marriage isn't restored, they might
well find that their divorces are more amicable and their future
relationships better because of the skills they acquire during the course.

At its best, the bill would help couples who would otherwise have divorced
learn the skills they need to nurse their relationship back to health and
happiness. That's a victory for the adults and children alike.

Because Chisum said that Michael Smalley, founder and executive director
of the Smalley Marriage and Family Center in The Woodlands, has been
conducting such courses successfully, I asked Smalley about his program.

Of the couples in struggling marriages who participated, Smalley found
that eight years later, 87 percent were satisfied and still together.

Though his data comes from an in-house longitudinal study, other research
has documented the effectiveness of a variety of marriage programs across
the country.

Even in the absence of a program, however, unhappy couples can turn things
around. A 2002 Institute for American Values' report (from a team led by
University of Chicago sociology professor Linda J. Waite) found that among
couples who were in troubled marriages, 64 percent of those who stuck it
out were happily married five years later. Furthermore, "(u)nhappily
married adults who divorced or separated were no happier, on average, than
unhappily married adults who stayed married."

The report notes that divorce itself can bring "new sources of distress,
from financial troubles to new relationship problems with the ex." At the
report's end, the authors explain that good and bad marriages might not be
fixed opposites, "but the same marriage at two different points in time.
.... If marriage is no panacea, neither is divorce."

Of course, plenty of people testify that their divorce did, in fact, make
them much happier than did their miserable marriage. No legislation
threatens their right to choose that path, and our society is widely
accepting of that decision.

Marriage education in general, and Rep. Chisum's bill in particular,
simply provide a relatively low-cost opportunity to help some couples
achieve their happily ever after.

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