A New Year’s Resolution for Marriage
by Brian S. Brown
With little fanfare, and even less media exposure, on Dec. 5, 2001 Governor Rowland created a new advisory Commission on Custody, Divorce, and Children. Perhaps the reason that the creation of the commission received as little attention as it did owes to its sticky subject matter. Divorce, we are told, is one of those subjects better left out of polite dinner conversation — let alone government commissions.
Throughout much of the nation, however, this fear of addressing the problem of divorce is simply passé. More and more states are supporting marriage and making a lower divorce rate a matter of public concern and action. The so-called “Marriage Movement” has swept through the West, Midwest, and South and is now even beginning to show signs of life here in the staid Northeast.
Put simply, the core principle of the Marriage Movement is that a stable two-parent household is the best environment in which to raise children. Sounds like common sense? Perhaps. But common sense alone rarely wins the day, especially when it concerns as sensitive a subject as divorce.
Instead, common sense has been buttressed by an overwhelming amount of social science research into the effects of divorce. Over the last decade, researchers across the nation have been compiling data on how divorce affects children and society. The answer has supported the common sense defense of the traditional family. Compared to children of intact families, children of divorce are more prone to crime, drug abuse, financial instability, have higher suicide rates, perform more poorly in reading, spelling, and math, and have higher school drop out rates. This says nothing of the effects on the parents.
As a matter of public policy, states have handled support of marriage in different ways. Louisiana and Arizona passed Covenant Marriage acts, which allow engaged couples to opt for a more binding form of union. In Oklahoma, Governor Frank Keating has made decreasing divorce a primary objective of his administration and has set aside $10 million of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for its marriage initiative. Arizona has passed legislation setting aside $1 million. Florida and Utah have passed legislation to include marriage education in the high school curriculum.
Even more important, Americans have begun to organize at the grassroots to decrease divorce. Churches across the country now require comprehensive marriage instruction aimed at lowering divorce rates, including a mandatory four-month preparation period before marriage and programs to help troubled marriages. Community Marriage Agreements (CMAs) have also sprung up across the country, where pastors, priests, and rabbis – with assistance from community leaders – agree to required pre-marriage counseling, instruction, and follow-up for all couples that wish to be married within a religious setting. In Modesto, California, the divorce rate has plunged 47.6% since ninety-five pastors signed a CMA in 1986.
With over 11,000 marriages end in divorce each year and two out of every five children experience the consequences of divorce, it is about time that we began to look seriously at implementing such solutions. The governor’s commission is only a beginning. Though its research and advice may be useful, we need much more.
The example of other successful states should be a guiding light for Connecticut lawmakers. In order to improve marriage and decrease divorce in 2002, Connecticut’s leaders should:
- Establish a goal of reducing the divorce rate and establishing pro-marriage education and mentoring programs. These would teach couples how to develop skills for handling conflict that would enhance the marital relationship.
- Require couples with minor children to complete divorce education and a mediated co-partnering plan before filing for divorce.
- Promote community-wide marriage programs for couples planning to get married and marriage mentoring programs for couples in troubled marriages.
- End “no-fault” divorce for parents with children under age 18, requiring them to prove that grave harm will be visited upon the children by having the marriage continue.
- Make the Covenant Marriage option available to engaged couples. This would voluntarily bind them to marriage by lengthening the process for obtaining divorce to two years.
Simultaneously, non-governmental groups, charities, and churches have a vital role to play. Already many churches have made marriage a top priority. In Manchester, an informal group of religious leaders meets once a month to discuss matters such as marriage preparation. The Catholic Church in Connecticut has committed substantial resources to Marriage Retreats for troubled couples. Avon’s Valley Community Baptist Church has even hired a trained psychiatrist and marriage therapist to create and run a vibrant marriage-training program.
We need to make these examples of institutional commitment to marriage the rule rather than the exception. In the coming year, the Family Institute of Connecticut will be working to bring nationally recognized leaders of the Marriage Movement to our state, publishing the first State of the Family Report, organizing the State’s first CMA, and working with churches, parishes, and synagogues to make marriage the lifelong commitment it should be. We sincerely hope that Connecticut legislators, community leaders, and the public at large will join us and the growing numbers of Americans who realize that marriage is more than a piece of paper: it is the foundation of our social, political, and economic order.