- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008

For more than 30 years, most Americans have told the General Social Survey (GSS) that they approve of divorce as a cure for a sick marriage.

But they also strongly support making divorce harder to get.

Political leaders ought to tap into this public disenchantment with easy divorce, says Michael McManus, veteran syndicated columnist and pro-marriage gadfly.

Congress should do for divorce what it did for drunken driving - reduce it by tying federal funding to state behavior, he told me at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington.

The outcome could be a 50 percent drop in divorce and preservation of homes for millions of children.

As noted, most Americans regularly tell the GSS that divorce is an acceptable remedy for an unhappy marriage. There’s even stronger agreement (67 percent) that parents shouldn’t stay in a difficult marriage for the sake of the children. So I realize there’s a lot of skepticism about cutting divorce rates in half, children or no children.

But Mr. McManus isn’t just your regular gadfly. He and wife Harriet inspired a marriage-mentoring movement with their book “Marriage Savers.”

They also developed Community Marriage Policies, in which virtually all the clergy in a town or county agree to certain pro-marriage rules, such as marrying couples only if they get premarital counseling. More than 200 communities have these policies, and a 2004 study showed that they help lower divorce rates.

Mr. McManus’ latest brainstorm is for states to adopt “mutual-consent” divorce laws for couples with minor children.

“[N]o divorce would be granted unless both the mother and father agree,” he writes in his new book, “How to Cut America’s Divorce Rate in Half.”

If there are egregious grounds for a divorce, such as abuse, the mutual consent can be waived. But in most cases, if one parent wants to go and the other wants to try to save the marriage, the divorce can’t be granted unless both consent.

The goal is to give some leverage to spouses who don’t want divorce, which is the case in four of five divorces, Mr. McManus says. Divorce laws are “rigged to destroy families, not to preserve them,” he says, since they allow one spouse to end a marriage for any reason, at any time.

Mr. McManus wants Congress to “nudge” states by passing a law to reduce a state’s welfare grants by 5 percent unless it passes a mutual-consent divorce law.

This is a strategy similar to the one Congress used to reduce drunken driving: States that didn’t set their legal drinking age at 21 would forfeit 10 percent of their highway funding. Age 21 soon became the norm.

The welfare grant should be tied to divorce reduction because one of the purposes of federal welfare funding is to “encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families,” Mr. McManus argues. Plus there’s a welfare “surplus,” he says, since the welfare caseload has dropped 60 percent but the $16.5 billion welfare grant hasn’t decreased a dime.

Government, he adds, has a vested interest in reducing divorce since it spends billions to support broken families. Plus, mutual-consent divorce laws would ensure that both spouses have equal say in the fate of their marriage.

Your thoughts, America?

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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