THE MARRIAGE MOVEMENT:
AN INTRODUCTION TO DIVORCE REFORM AND OTHER MARRIAGE ISSUES
Part of the Divorce
Reform Page, sponsored by Americans for Divorce
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[This introductory piece is from 1999 and so does not cover
some recent developments]
By John Crouch
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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