The Anti-Divorce Revolution: The Debate on Marriage Takes a Surprising Turn
Pia Nordlinger
The Weekly Standard, March 2, 1998

Town & Country, a glossy magazine for the well-heeled, touted a special feature in its January issue: "T&C�s Guide to Civilized Divorce." Placed just before photos of society newlyweds in the monthly "Weddings" section, the guide highlights how to choose the right attorney, minimize costs, and spare the children mental anguish. The 16-page insert even includes a compilation of America's top divorce lawyers, complete with their professional nicknames: �Your Worst Nightmare,� �The Hired Gun� and �The Stealth Bomber.�

Readers of slick magazines may be interested in the mode of divorce, but the rest of the country is far more concerned about its rate. One fact is well known: Every year since 1975, over one million marriages in the United States have ended in divorce. What is less well known is that grass-roots efforts to reduce the divorce rate are springing up across the country. Little by little, an anti-divorce movement is gathering steam. State legislators are considering reform of no-fault divorce laws. Churches and synagogues are working with couples to hold marriages together. Marriage education, as opposed to traditional marriage therapy, is gaining popularity. New research challenges the rationale behind divorce �for the children�s sake,� and analysts are arguing for new attitudes toward marriage and the family. These scattered battles add up to an undeclared but unmistakable war on divorce.

The legislative flank of this many-faceted movement concentrates on rolling back �no-fault� divorce. First passed in 1969 by the California legislature and signed into law by then-governor Ronald Reagan, no-fault divorce was eventually adopted in every state. It made a clean break with a past in which proof of fault �adultery, cruelty, criminal conviction, desertion, addiction, and so on� was always required. Under pure no-fault laws, a spouse who wants out is relieved of the necessity of proving that his or her partner is to blame for some fundamental breach of the marriage contract: In effect, either spouse can end a marriage unilaterally. A husband or wife has only to declare that the marriage is �irrevocably broken� or that the couple has developed �irreconcilable differences� and a divorce will be granted, usually after a waiting period. The law thus sides with the spouse who would dissolve the marriage contract, rendering a spouse who contests a divorce essentially powerless. Only 14 states have pure no-fault systems; the others have hybrids. In Pennsylvania, for example, a couple can choose either fault-based or no-fault divorce. An uncontested no-fault divorce is granted in 90 days, but if one spouse contests, a two-year separation is required before a no-fault divorce can take place.

Originally, no-fault laws were meant to make divorce less traumatic and more honest. Fault-based divorce required proof of bad behavior on someone�s part, and the proof was often concocted by parties eager to separate. Another goal of the reformers was equality. According to Lenore Weitzman, author of The Divorce Revolution, no-fault laws were intended �to effect equal treatment for men and women by abolishing the sex-based assumptions of the traditional law� regarding matters like alimony and custody. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture, places the rapid spread of no-fault in the context of the 1970s embrace of individualism and self-actualization. �With the advent of expressive divorce,� she writes, �the argument for regulating divorce collapsed.�

As a result, the marriage contract became less binding. No-fault enabled men and women to escape horrific marriages--and it allowed them to abandon average ones as well. The number of broken marriages climbed, as divorce-on-demand became standard. True, divorce rates were rising before the birth of the no-fault nation, which leads no-fault advocates to blame a multitude of other factors for the trend. But no-fault should not be let off the hook entirely. During the 1970s, when more and more states were adopting no-fault laws, the annual number of divorces shot from 708,000 in 1970 to 1,181,000 in 1979, an increase of 66 percent.

Even as divorce was becoming commonplace, public opinion remained ambivalent. Between 1970 and 1995, the minority who oppose divorce as a solution to marital difficulty rose slowly from 22 percent to 34 percent, according to CBS News polls. More striking, through the �80s and �90s roughly half the respondents to National Opinion Research Center surveys agreed with the statement, �Divorce should be more difficult to obtain than it is now,� while the share who thought it should be even easier hovered around 25 percent.

Still, the public may not be ready to repeal no-fault. Most attempts to toughen state laws have failed. The notable exception came last July, when Louisiana enacted �covenant marriage.� Couples in that state now have the opportunity to choose between a standard marriage and a covenant marriage, which includes premarital counseling and, if the marriage should break down, counseling before a divorce can take place. Covenant couples can be granted a no-fault divorce only after a two-year waiting period, four times the standard period. Yet covenant couples may seek a fault-based divorce if there is evidence of adultery, abandonment, physical or sexual abuse, or felony imprisonment.

Since Louisiana�s law took effect, only a tiny fraction of couples have taken the covenant plunge. Legislators are discussing variants of covenant marriage in Indiana, California, Michigan, and Virginia, but in most states, reformers are looking for other ways to make divorce more difficult and marriage more thoughtful.

Thus, a bill proposed in Virginia would allow no-fault divorce only if neither spouse contests and there are no minor children. �Loose divorce laws are a conspirator in the breakdown of the family,� says sponsor Roger McClure, a Republican. �I�m trying to craft a way to protect the young mother who is dependent on her husband and his income.� McClure�s bill died in subcommittee. In Texas, Republican representative Arlene Wohlgemuth introduced a similar bill that would have required a one-year waiting period for a no-fault divorce. That bill also went nowhere, but Wohlgemuth plans to introduce it again. In Florida, the Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act, co-sponsored by Democrat Elaine Bloom and Republican Steve Wise, would have required all couples to submit to a four-hour premarital-counseling course before obtaining a marriage license, and it would have withheld finalization of divorces until the couple had attended a �marriage-preservation� course. This too was defeated.

The most comprehensive reform package has been introduced in Michigan, by Republican Jesse Dalman. One distinctive provision would require parents of minors to create �parenting plans� if they wish to divorce; these plans would address the children�s physical care, residential schedule, education, and emotional welfare. Dalman also proposes a three-tier divorce system: consent, no-consent, and �legal separate maintenance.� This hybrid would replace Michigan�s pure no-fault regime. The Dalman bills are at various stages of review.

One serious roadblock to such legislation is concern about government intrusion in the private sphere. In the Illinois House, Republican James Durkin was asked to sponsor a bill that offered couples the choice between premarital counseling and a 60-day waiting period for a marriage license. He demurred on grounds of government expansion. �It�s not our place to dictate how people will enter into the sanctity of marriage,� he says. �For the state to mandate premarital counseling is just going too far.�

And opposition hardly stops there. Domestic-violence activists and others argue that stricter divorce laws will make it harder for victims to leave abusive spouses. Other advocates for women, meanwhile, point out that fault-based divorce is expensive, forcing women of modest means to leave their marriages without divorce and thus without the alimony and child support afforded by the legal process.

Nor are the country�s pundits universally admiring of anti-divorce efforts. In a column published last year, the Nation�s Katha Pollitt proclaimed divorce �an American value.� �The real aim of conservative divorce reform,� she wrote, �is to enforce a narrow and moralistic vision of marriage by rendering divorce more painful and more punitive.� Margaret Talbot, writing in the New Republic, also argued for divorce as an honored American right: �The love match, rather than the arranged marriage, has been the norm in the United States from its inception. And since love matches are inherently wobblier than arranged marriages, divorce has long been something of an American tradition, too.�

But the issue is larger than how hard or easy the law should make it for a couple to part when their marriage has broken down. Those who believe that family breakup damages individuals and the country are not confining their efforts to legislation. Much of the energy behind the movement is religious in inspiration, and much of the thrust is positive, stressing the need to build strong marriages.

Leading this charge is Marriage Savers, an organization that works towards a simple goal: �What God has joined together, let the church hold together.� Michael McManus, a syndicated columnist and president of Marriage Savers, has been addressing the need to shore up marriage since the early 1980s. His organization is based on the premise that religious institutions and their congregations need to play a meaningful role in the marriages they solemnize. �Too many churches,� writes McManus, �are simply blessing machines or wedding factories, grinding out weddings on Saturday, with no strategy on how to help those couples be successful.�

McManus does have a strategy, and it appears to be catching on. In scores of cities, religious leaders of all faiths have adopted what he calls a Community Marriage Policy. Clergy from every denomination are invited to gather and draw up a set of requirements for couples who want to be married. The goal is to reduce the divorce rate by properly preparing couples for marriage, building strong marriages, and saving marriages that face disaster. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, the Community Marriage Policy requires couples to attend four premarital-counseling sessions that involve religious instruction and relationship training; and the clergy are pledged to promote courtships of at least a year and to teach long-married �mentor couples� to work with engaged couples. In Reading, Pennsylvania, clergy encourage teenagers to sign a �True Love Waits� pledge of sexual abstinence, require four months of marriage preparation, meet with newlyweds twice in their first year of marriage, and urge all married couples to attend a marriage retreat.

Community Marriage Policies are gaining in popularity. Modesto, California, signed the first one in 1986. By 1993, only 14 cities had joined the program, but since then, the number has leapt to 80. While some cities have a long way to go before they reduce their divorce rate, others are already claiming success. According to McManus, Modesto has reduced its divorce rate by 40 percent, and Peoria, Illinois, saw a 19 percent drop between 1991 and 1995.

In addition to promoting Community Marriage Policies, Marriage Savers is inviting all churches to offer marriage counseling. The counseling that the group recommends begins with a �premarital inventory,� an exercise designed to help couples evaluate their relationship. One inventory, entitled PREPARE, asks each partner to agree or disagree with 125 statements, such as, �We openly discuss problems and usually find good solutions,� �I expect that some romantic love will fade after marriage,� and �I have some concerns about how my partner will be as a parent.� The partners then discuss their answers with an older mentor couple from the congregation who have volunteered their time to help the younger couple think through issues surrounding marriage. McManus is especially proud of the mentoring program. �In the Bible, Luke writes that the Lord sent out disciples two by two into every town,� he says. �You think of two Mormons walking down the street. My image is of a man and a woman in their den, talking to a younger couple.�

Generally, couples walk away from all this mentoring and counseling with greater confidence in their future marriage. Some, however, decide to break off their engagement. According to Dr. David Olson, the author of PREPARE, one in ten couples who take the inventory decides not to marry. (Olson claims, further, that his inventory can predict with 86 percent accuracy which couples will divorce and which will stay together.) Meetings with mentors open a few eyes, as well. McManus says that, in his church, mentor couples held premarital sessions with 135 couples, of whom 25 decided not to marry. Better a broken engagement, goes the thinking, than a broken home.

Churches are promoting well-considered marriage, but this is not exclusively religious work. Secular efforts to improve marriages are growing as well. The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, run by former marriage therapist Diane Sollee in Washington, D.C., serves as a clearinghouse of information for people who want to learn more about marriage education. The premise of marriage education is that men and women can get along if they have the ability to communicate and that ability is teachable. Explains Sollee, �Couples who stay married and couples who divorce disagree exactly the same amount. What matters is how they go about it. You can learn those skills.� Marriage-skills classes, intended for couples at any stage of a relationship, are markedly different from group therapy. In fact, emoting is strictly discouraged. � �Express your feelings� is some of the worst advice a person can give to a couple,� says Sollee. �Your feelings at the time might be that your partner is a scum-sucking loser, but that�s not going to help. Emotions can get out of control--or you can share them within a structure.� Exercises such as premarital inventories may be useful to couples who are having a relatively easy time of it, but those on the verge of divorce need other kinds of help. The Catholic church--which has run mentoring and other marriage-strengthening programs for years--administers �Retrouvaille� (French for �rediscovery�), designed for couples who, in the words of Diane Sollee, �answer �no� when you ask them, �Do you still love each other?� � During a weekend retreat, mentor couples who have overcome major rifts--caused by such problems as adultery and alcohol abuse--share their experiences with participants who are considering divorce or have already separated. Subsequent sessions help spouses work through their grievances and, ideally, lead them to forgive each other. Open to people of all faiths, Retrouvaille weekends reportedly save eight out of every ten marriages they treat.

In the secular camp, Michele Weiner-Davis, a Chicago family therapist, has built a practice around a new form of marriage counseling--�Solution-Oriented Brief Therapy.� Weiner-Davis emphasizes that this is not traditional marriage therapy. �In a Freudian approach to marriage therapy, you first try to understand what the problem is,� she says. �You look at the past, your parents, and their marriage. Then you look at the combination of all that with your spouse. That sort of introspection takes a very long time. Instead of focusing on the past, I generate ways of handling the current situation.�

Weiner-Davis developed her approach in the 1980s, but her practice took off after her book, Divorce Busting, appeared in 1992. �People have flown in from all over the country,� she says. �They read the book and think I�m their savior.� And for good reason: Weiner-Davis estimates that she saves 85 percent of her clients from divorce. To reach as many people as possible, she travels the country leading workshops and seminars for both therapists and the general public.

For marriages gone awry, the range of help available has broadened. Larger questions, however, still lurk below the surface. Why bother? Why keep a failed marriage together? Some of those without religious answers look to scientific research for clues. In the process, a number of intellectuals, some of them liberals, have turned their attention to confronting the divorce-friendly culture.

Psychologist Judith Wallerstein has played an unparalleled role in documenting how divorce affects children. Starting in 1971, she tracked 131 children of divorce for 25 years. For the purposes of her study, Wallerstein became a trusted presence in the children�s lives, interviewing them at various stages and assessing their psychological well-being. She concluded that divorce creates unexpectedly deep and long-lasting problems. Wallerstein presents her findings in Surviving the Breakup and Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce. Her latest report, released in July 1997, discusses 26 children now in their twenties who were 2 to 6 years old when their parents divorced. Half of the children developed serious drug or alcohol problems, some before the age of 14. Fear of failing in their own relationships and fear of having children are pervasive among them, as are severe feelings of abandonment.

Wallerstein and others who stress the high cost of divorce raise hackles among those committed to the view that children are better off when a bad marriage ends. But a new study of family upheaval by sociologists Paul Amato of the University of Nebraska and Alan Booth of Pennsylvania State University underlines some important distinctions. According to their research, reported in their 1997 book A Generation at Risk, the worst situations for children are high-conflict marriages that last and low-conflict marriages that end in divorce. And it turns out that most divorces fall into the latter category: A whopping 70 percent of divorces end �low-conflict� marriages. �For children�s sake,� Amato and Booth conclude, �some marriages should not be salvaged. But in marriages that are not fraught with severe conflict and abuse, future generations would be well served if parents remained together until children are grown.�

Outside academia, the starting point for much of the current anti-divorce literature was Barbara Dafoe Whitehead�s famous article �Dan Quayle Was Right,� in the April 1993 Atlantic.. Whitehead was then based at the Institute for American Values in New York, whose president, David Blankenhorn, is another leading analyst of the effects of divorce. In her article, she exposed the dire straits of the American family and called for sustained attention to the challenge of rebuilding it. �Every time the issue of family structure has been raised,� she wrote, �the response has been first controversy, then retreat, and finally silence.� This time, the controversy has yet to die out.

Whitehead expanded her argument in The Divorce Culture, published in 1997. And last September, she joined forces with David Popenoe, professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of Life Without Father, to launch The National Marriage Project, a mini-think tank fostering research and critical thinking on marriage. Popenoe hopes to put marriage into the political lexicon. �Marriage is a term that can be a third rail in politics,� he says. �People talk about families, not about marriages.� This positive attention to marriage is an important development. �We�ve shifted from the critique of divorce to the crisis of marriage,� says Whitehead. Columnist Maggie Gallagher, the author of The Abolition of Marriage, concurs: �I would never call this an anti-divorce movement. It�s a marriage movement. The focus is not to punish people who have divorces. It�s to tell people that there is this extremely important thing called marriage that needs a lot of support from education, religion, and public policy.� Even Judith Wallerstein, who spent the last 25 years tracing the effects of divorce, has shifted her attention to marriages that last. Her latest book, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Works, is the product of interviews with 50 couples who consider themselves happily married.

With efforts advancing on so many different fronts to strengthen families and cultivate an aversion to divorce, a continuing gradual shift in attitudes seems likely. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead looks forward to a vibrant dialogue about marriage. It is already taking place across the country, in statehouses and church basements and living rooms. �This is a new and important movement,� she says. �It�s not monolithic. It�s arising out of the cracks in the sidewalks.� Successful counter-cultural movements usually do. ®

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