- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

America's legal system should create "marriage hospitals" for troubled couples instead of just putting them on a "conveyor belt" to divorce, a former divorce mediator contends. The opposite view is thatcourt-ordered reconciliation services already have been tried and dropped and what troubled couples need are services that help them achieve divorce amicably.
These competing outlooks illustrate America's ongoing struggle about whether divorce should become "normalized" or resisted with greater vigor.
Judy Parejko, a former divorce mediator in Wisconsin, believes the no-fault divorce reform of the 1960s is "a bait-and-switch" on the American people.
In the 1960s, legal analysts agreed on the wisdom of ending the practice of requiring a spouse to prove that the other was "at fault" for abandonment, abuse or adultery before a divorce could be granted, Mrs. Parejko wrote in her self-published book, "Stolen Vows: The Illusion of No-Fault Divorce and the Rise of the American Divorce Industry."
Many of these '60s divorce reformers, however, wanted to preserve marriage and, as a safeguard, called for the creation of comprehensive, court-run reconciliation services to help couples work out problems.
These services could have been like a "marriage hospital," where couples could be helped to resolve their differences and stay married or proceed with divorce with less acrimony, said Mrs. Parejko, who researched 1960s documents for her book.
When California's landmark no-fault reform was enacted in 1969, though, the marriage-saving services weren't part of the package, having been jettisoned as too expensive, Mrs. Parejko said. No-fault divorce, which had been pitched as a benefit to couples who both wanted to divorce, was allowed if only one spouse wanted it.
These changes turned the legal system into "a conveyor belt" for divorce, making it guaranteed for any spouse who could hire an attorney, Mrs. Parejko said, regardless of any wrongdoing and regardless of the wishes of the other spouse.
Marriage counseling is not new. Before no-fault divorce was passed, troubled couples routinely were ordered to see marriage counselors, countered Peter Salem, executive director of the Association of Family & Conciliation Courts in Madison, Wis.
These reconciliation services were well-intended, he said, but many times couples didn't want the services and just went through the motions. The courts eventually stopped referring couples to marriage counseling "because the demand dried up."
"Courts try to serve the needs of the clients who come to them," Mr. Salem said. "In divorce, they've taken a legal action. The court's responsibility is to assess that legal situation and respond to the legal action."
He noted that dozens of courts now require parent education and/or mediation services to promote constructive resolution of family conflict.
Divorce remains common in America. In 2000, 18.9 divorces were reported per 1,000 married women, according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. That was a smaller rate than the 19.8 divorces per 1,000 married women in 1999 and considerably lower than the peak rate of 22.6 divorces per 1,000 wives in 1980.
In the 1960s, before no-fault divorce swept America, the rate was a modest 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women.
Many social scientists argue that Americans should accept divorce as a part of family life.
"In 1867, less than 10 percent of all marriages in the United States ended in divorce; by 1985, that figure had grown to over 50 percent," clinical psychologist and family therapist William M. Pinsof wrote last year in Family Process, a journal on family research.
This meant that by the end of the 20th century, "divorce replaced death as the 'normal' endpoint of most marriages," Mr. Pinsof wrote.
"It is time to move beyond thinking about the divorce rate as an indicator of a social disorder that must be reduced, to thinking about it more neutrally and inquisitively," he concluded, calling for more research into helping people deal with this new "marital reality."
The idea that divorce could be a normal part of family life was the same old thinking that animated the 1970s reformers, said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values.
Back then, he said, "there was a kind of utopianism about the possibilities of divorce … that divorce could be liberating and there could be renewal through separation."
"Now there's a general sense that we're tired of divorce, that this is not something we would wish on our children. And it even seems naive to think that we could have a 30 or 40 percent divorce rate and everything would be just fine," Mr. Blankenhorn said.
John Crouch, executive director of Americans for Divorce Reform in Arlington, said a significant change in divorce law would be to deny no-fault divorces in cases where a couple has minor children or if one spouse doesn't want it. The group tracks such laws on its Web site, www.divorcereform.org.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, two judges are trying their own approaches to divorce reform.
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Helen E. Brown, who handles divorce and related custody and support cases, has promoted a mediation program with the potential to help divorcing couples consider reconciling. Most couples who took the mediation program didn't return to the court for services.
However, that mediation program was dropped in favor of another one that focused on counseling couples about their divorces; its major innovation was that the divorce counseling was conducted without attorneys present.
The court is "not interested in reconciliation," Judge Brown said.
"The judges' interest is in having good statistics how many [divorce] cases are on my docket, how many are finished in a timely manner," she said. Anything including reconciliation that slows down that "assembly line" is not wanted."
District Court Judge James E. Sheridan in Adrian, Mich., doesn't officiate over divorces, but he can officiate over marriages, and he has adopted a policy not to marry anyone unless they have taken premarital education courses.
He also has persuaded several other judges, magistrates and mayors to follow suit.
"None of these folks will grant a marriage license without a premarital inventory, communication skills and dispute-resolution classes," he said.
Judge Sheridan supports the concept of a court-related "marriage hospital" as something "that's so obvious that it borders on the no-brainer." However, he also said "it doesn't really matter" what divorce reformers intended 35 years ago.
"What's important is what we've learned since," Judge Sheridan said, "and we've learned through experience that [divorce] has been a disaster and it's time to try something different."

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