- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

Easy divorce appears here to stay. Since no-fault laws were introduced in the 1970s, not one has been repealed.But is there really widespread support for “easy” divorce?

Not according to one of the nation’s most venerable public opinion polls.

In fact, for 30 years, most Americans have steadfastly told the General Social Survey (GSS) that they want divorce laws to be made “more difficult,” not “easier,” a Washington Times review has found.

In 19 surveys between 1974 and 2002, the GSS has asked a national sample of American adults: “Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?”

Every survey conducted shows that a majority or plurality of Americans think divorce should be made “more difficult.”

Even in the 1970s, when no-fault divorce laws were sweeping the nation, 42 percent of Americans wanted divorce to be “more difficult,” compared with 32 percent who wanted it to be “easier.”

Today, Americans are even more supportive of tougher divorce laws. In 2002, for instance, 49 percent said they wanted divorce to be “more difficult,” while 26 percent wanted it to be “easier.”

Not only does the GSS show that people want divorce to be more difficult, but, according to national divorce data, people are actually supporting the results of these surveys by not getting divorced in their own lives, said Kirk Johnson, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, who assisted The Washington Times by providing access to the GSS data.

Federal data show that divorce remains a common American experience despite having statistically fallen to 1972 levels.

In 2003, for instance, the divorce rate was 3.9 divorces per 1,000 people. This is down slightly from the 4.0 rate in 2001 and 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The 2003 rate is a heartening decline from the peak divorce rate of 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people in 1981. However, it is still far above the average divorce rate of 2.6 divorces per 1,000 people during the 30 years between 1940 and 1970.

Despite steadfast public support for tougher divorce laws, there has been very little headway made in that direction, said people who study divorce reform.

Every year, many states propose legislation to require premarital counseling, longer waiting periods before a divorce, or “mutual consent” from both spouses for a no-fault divorce. But these bills are rarely, if ever, passed, said John Crouch, executive director of Americans for Divorce Reform, a nonprofit group in Arlington that tracks divorce legislation.

Leaders in the legal arena even have signaled that they would like to see divorce expanded to include unmarried couples who break up.

In 2002, the American Law Institute (ALI) said in a report that domestic partners often live together for a long time and share parenting duties, a residence and other assets.

When such relationships end, they should be treated like a divorce, with alimony assigned to one ex-partner and property divided the same as marital assets, said authors of the ALI report, “Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution: Analysis and Recommendations.” The new policy should apply to unmarried heterosexual couples and homosexual couples, the ALI said.

Supporters of such an unprecedented divorce policy say it will make family law more fair and consistent and will protect children born out of wedlock. Opponents say it further undermines the institution of marriage and creates a new client base for lawyers.

Meanwhile, there are even more than “50 ways to leave your lover,” as singer Paul Simon crooned in the mid-1970s.

For instance, Web sites such as www.completecase.com and www.LegalZoom.com offer uncontested-divorce papers for as little as $250.

The price is even cheaper in Lincoln County, Wash., where for $140 couples can get their uncontested divorce by mail, with no court appearance needed.

For couples with disputed assets or child-custody issues, there are “certified divorce planners,” trained by the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts in Southfield, Mich., to assist with the “exit process.”

To make the breakup as conflict-free as possible, couples can also choose to hire their own teams of child psychologists, counselors, lawyers and personal divorce coaches, trained at the Collaborative Divorce Training Institute in Cupertino, Calif.

Some couples hold clergy-attended divorce ceremonies to return their wedding rings and vow “to respect you as an individual.”

Such a ceremony is sometimes followed by a “divorce shower” or a “divorce party,” in which friends and family bring gifts to replenish a newly single person’s bare shelves. A popular restaurant chain, Dick’s Last Resort, hosts such parties, complete with a “break-up cake” with a plastic bride and groom stuck upside-down in the frosting, reports DivorceMagazine.com, which compiles such stories for its online “ex-” files.

Meanwhile, one divorce reform aimed at ending no-fault divorce — covenant marriage — seems to be accomplishing its goal of discouraging divorce, according to new data.

“The divorce rate among covenant couples is slightly less than half that of the standard couples,” said Stephen L. Nock, who has been studying covenant marriage for the past five years.

Covenant marriage is a harder-to-get-into, harder-to-end form of marriage that couples can sign up for. As family law professor Katherine Spaht, a supporter of the law, has described it: Covenant marriage is “the first time in over 200 years in any Western country that divorce law has gone in the other direction — that divorce has become more difficult, rather than easier.”

Covenant marriage “doesn’t change existing marriage laws, but allows couples the choice of a marriage with stronger protections,” said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, who, as a Louisiana lawmaker, crafted that state’s 1997 covenant-marriage law.

To obtain a covenant-marriage license, couples must have premarital counseling and agree that they will seek marriage counseling should problems arise.

Covenant couples can divorce, but it takes longer (at least two years, instead of six months) and divorces are granted only if there’s been abuse, adultery, imprisonment, abandonment or two years’ separation.

But does a covenant-marriage license translate into a stronger marriage?

To answer that question, Mr. Nock, who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has been conducting a five-year study of 600 Louisiana couples — 300 with covenant marriages and 300 with “standard” marriages — to see if there’s a difference in their divorce rates and why.

A full report is likely to be out later this year, but “I think we know the basic story lines,” Mr. Nock said.

To begin with, certain people are attracted to certain types of marriages.

“The sort of person who is attracted to covenant marriage is somewhat better educated, somewhat more affluent and more traditional across the board,” with firmly held religious beliefs and no cohabiting or unwed childbearing before marriage, Mr. Nock said. Women are more attracted to covenant marriage than men.

“So, knowing nothing else about the couples, you could predict that the sort of couple who ends up in a covenant marriage would have a lower divorce rate just because they are more traditional to begin with, and traditional couples have lower divorce rates,” Mr. Nock said.

“And they do,” he said. “Over the course of the first five years, there have been twice as many divorces among standard-marriage couples, compared to covenant-marriage couples.”

To date, he adds, less than 5 percent of Louisiana couples have gotten covenant marriages, both because it has not been widely advertised and because clerks in local licensing offices have not understood or been supportive of the option.

However, there is considerable interest in covenant marriage, Mr. Nock concluded. “One in five people who got married in standard ceremonies tell us in interviews that they would prefer to have gotten a covenant marriage. This is a very large number, and it’s largely women. So there’s a huge latent demand for covenant marriage in our opinion,” he said.

Covenant-marriage bills are regularly introduced in other states, but Arizona and Arkansas are the only other states that have enacted them.

Meanwhile, a marriage movement, with workshops, books, programs, speakers and research aimed at strengthening and repairing marriage, is gaining traction. The Bush administration is fueling optimism in this area by backing $1.5 billion in welfare funds over five years for promoting healthy marriages.

One long-term approach — the Community Marriage Policy, promoted by syndicated columnist Michael McManus and his wife, Harriet — is claiming dramatic results in Modesto, Calif., and Kansas City, Kan.

In these two cities, virtually all of the clergy have agreed not to marry a couple unless they have undergone extensive premarital counseling. Divorce rates in both cities have now fallen by about 60 percent, Mr. McManus has written.

The vast majority of troubled marriages can become happy, said Michele Weiner-Davis, author of “Divorce Busting” and “The Sex-Starved Marriage,” who has been counseling couples on the brink of divorce for 20 years.

“So many times, in the 11th hour, they do what it takes to turn things around,” she said. “In my mind, all problems are solvable until proven otherwise.”

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