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By John Crouch

[This introductory piece is from 1999 and so does not cover some recent developments]
In the past few years, many people in different professions and from different parts of the political spectrum have been taking a new look at divorce. They have come up with several kinds of proposals that would reduce divorce. These include requiring both spouses' consent for a no-fault divorce; introducing optional "covenant marriage;" and pre-marital counseling requirements, imposed either by churches and synagogues or by states.

A new awareness of the real causes and effects of divorce began in the mid-1980s. Sociologists began to report that women's and children's incomes nosedived after divorce. Economists and legal scholars pointed out that our current divorce laws lead to far more divorces than would be economically efficient for the people involved, because the laws let either spouse end the marriage for any reason. This encourages people to be prepared for divorce and to look out for their own self-interest, rather than invest their entire lives in a marriage which has no legal protection. Many other scholars have discovered that divorce has all kinds of bad effects on children: it greatly increases the risks of emotional problems, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol problems, smoking, poverty and crime.

First Lady Hillary R. Clinton has written: "Recent studies demonstrate convincingly that ... children living with one parent or in stepfamilies are two to three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems as children living in two-parent families. ... Every society requires a critical mass of families that fit the traditional ideal, both to meet the needs of most children and to serve as a model for other adults who are raising children in difficult settings. We are at risk of losing that critical mass in America today."

Finally, therapists and marriage counselors have come forward to say that most marriages do not simply "fail" because of fate or predestination. Rather, what usually happens is that people give up on their marriages because they're not as committed to making them work as they could be, and because no one has taught them the skills that people need to deal with the disagreements and disappointments of married life together.

State legislators have responded to these findings in several ways. In several states they have introduced bills that would require the consent of both spouses for most divorces if the family has children. However, divorce would still be available without consent in cases of things like abuse, desertion or adultery, using the "fault" grounds of divorce that are still available in most states. None of these bills have passed yet in any state, although they have come very close in some states.

"Covenant Marriage" is another proposal for changing divorce law. This would let couples choose whether they wanted to be married under the current "no-fault" system, which lets either of them dissolve the marriage at any time, or whether they want a marriage that is harder to get out of. Most current covenant marriage proposals require counseling and training before the marriage, and also before a divorce is granted. They also slightly increase the waiting period that's already required by current law in order to get a divorce, so that there will be more time for the parties to work on their marriage in counseling. Covenant marriage is being considered by many state legislatures around the country and has already become law in Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona.

Proposals to beef up the counseling that people receive before marriage have enjoyed even wider support than Covenant Marriage and divorce reform proposals. A group of clergy and concerned lay people called "Marriage Savers" has helped clergy of all denominations in over 100 cities to create "Community Marriage Policies." These policies create uniform minimum requirements for marriage preparation for any couple that wants to be married in a church or synagogue. Some judges who perform marriages have also adopted the policies.

Finally, lawmakers are considering ways to eliminate the "marriage penalty" in federal and state tax laws. Many couples, especially when both spouses work and earn roughly similar amounts, have to pay a lot more in income taxes than they would if they had not married. Though couples suffering a marriage penalty under the federal tax code are reportedly not a majority, the burden on them and the resulting incentives are nonetheless very real. There are also marriage penalties in the earned income tax credit, social security benefits, and for many different tax deductions.

All this is just the beginning of a long-term change in how Americans as a culture look at marriage and divorce.

By John Crouch, Executive Director
Americans for Divorce Reform

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Originally posted and maintained by Americans for Divorce Reform; now maintained by John Crouch. You can call me at (703) 528-6700 or e-mail me through my law office's web site.