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WETZSTEIN: Covenant marriage works

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

Eleven years ago, a handful of Louisiana lawmakers convinced their colleagues to legalize a new kind of divorce-resistant marriage called "covenant marriage."

A study was conducted between 1999 and 2004, and a verdict is now in: Covenant-marriage couples are much less likely to divorce.

The data is "pretty clear," said Laura Sanchez, associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University and one of the study researchers.

While there were questions early on, "we followed them far enough along to establish that they really do have lower divorce rates," she told me recently.

What does this mean for the nation?

Simply put, it shows that if lawmakers set up ground rules for marriage that require premarital counseling, a written pledge to "take all reasonable steps" to preserve the marriage, and set stricter grounds for divorce, some couples will choose covenant marriage — and flourish because of it.

Does this mean covenant marriage is about to sweep the nation?

Not likely. Louisiana's law passed Aug. 15, 1997, and Arizona and Arkansas passed their laws shortly thereafter. But while at least 20 states have dabbled with the idea, none have followed suit.

Instead, said Ms. Sanchez, states have adopted "pieces of the law," such as discounting marriage-license fees for couples who obtain premarital counseling.

The full story is in a new book, "Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America," from Rutgers University Press.

Once Louisiana enacted covenant marriage, sociologists jumped at the chance to see how "covenant couples" compared to couples with "standard" marriages, which in that state can be dissolved in six months.

University of Central Florida sociology professor James D. Wright conducted the study with Ms. Sanchez and University of Virginia sociology professor Steven L. Nock, who died in January after a battle with diabetes.

Their study involved about 600 couples, half with covenant marriages and half with standard marriages. The 1,200 husbands and wives were interviewed as newlyweds and at the two-year and five-year marks.

By the end of the study, 8.6 percent of covenant couples were divorced, compared with 15.4 percent of couples with standard marriages.

From the beginning, there was a big difference between couples, Ms. Sanchez said. Covenant couples were more likely to be religious and believe in lifelong marriage, and less likely to have cohabited before marriage or have any children, she said.

The covenant couples' strong religiosity — especially among the wives — was a huge factor in their higher levels of marital quality and lower divorce rates. Also, covenant couples truly saw their marriages as important, both for themselves and the nation, she said.

"They are trying to turn back what they see as the culture of divorce. ... They really feel they are pioneers or innovators, and they are engaging in the public dialogue about what marriage is through their own marriage."

One would think there would be strong support for covenant marriage, but "[t]he fact is, covenant marriage has been opposed by progressives, conservatives, feminists, traditionalists and religious leaders, although for very different reasons," Ms. Sanchez and her co-authors wrote.

As a result, about 2 percent of Louisiana couples have covenant marriages — and even fewer have them in Arizona and Arkansas — "so in terms of gross impact on state divorce rates, I say it's fair to say it won't have any," Mr. Wright said.

Thus, after 11 years, covenant marriage is still in its infancy.

Yes, it has its moments. On Feb. 14, 2005, Arkansas' then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and wife, Janet, publicly renewed their marriage with a covenant-marriage vow. Phil and Cindy Waugh maintain a Web site (www.covenant marriage.com) for the Covenant Marriage Movement. State lawmakers still offer covenant-marriage bills.

But unless far more couples choose this kind of marriage — which anyone can do by marrying in Louisiana, Arizona or Arkansas — it is unlikely to have the sweeping impact its authors envisioned.

Still, "for starting the conversation" about how marriage is changing in America and what can be done about it, "covenant marriage earns an A," the study's researchers wrote.

Cheryl Wetzstein's On the Family column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.