- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The state of Minnesota will soon begin offering, at state expense, divorce reconciliation services to couples considering dissolving their marriages.

The Minnesota Couples on the Brink project was signed last week as part of an omnibus spending bill by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is often mentioned in speculation about Republican presidential tickets.

The new project will give couples an “offramp” if they find themselves on the road to divorce, by offering on a voluntary basis short-term coaching to help the husband and wife decide whether they really want to split. If a couple decides to rebuild the marriage, the project will help craft a reconciliation plan.

Pro-family advocates contend that the current court system assumes its role is to facilitate divorce, not to reconcile couples.

“The judicial system tends to increase conflict, not decrease it,” said state Sen. Steve Dille, lead sponsor of the law.

But not all couples who file for divorce actually want to break up, said Mr. Dille, a Republican who helped pass several pro-marriage laws during his 24 years in the Minnesota Legislature.

William J. Doherty, a family studies professor at the University of Minnesota, surveyed about 2,500 couples who had attended a mandatory divorce education class in Hennepin County during 2008 and 2009.

In about 30 percent of cases, one spouse said they wanted the divorce while the other did not, and in about 10 percent, “both partners were open to trying again” to save their marriage, Mr. Dille said.

That 10 percent is a substantial number — about 1,500 couples a year statewide, Mr. Dille said. Divorce may certainly be the best choice for some couples, he added, but for others — if they knew more about divorce and its aftermath, “they might want to find an alternate path.”

The Minnesota Couples on the Brink project will be offered through the University of Minnesota, and will be funded from an existing $5 fee assessed on marriage licenses.

That fee is a feature of another of Mr. Dille’s marriage-strengthening laws, one that requires couples who do not complete a premarital education course to pay an extra $75 for their license — $115 instead of $40.

The new project will serve couples who have filed or are thinking of filing for divorce by offering them short-term coaching about their divorce decisions.

Couples who decide to divorce will continue with that process; couples who decide to rebuild their marriage will receive counseling, mentoring, referrals for services and connections to support groups, according to an outline of the program from Mr. Doherty, a psychologist who directs the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.

Marriage movement leaders praised the Minnesota law as an exciting development for divorce reform.

This “blazes a path” for other states, SmartMarriages.com founder Diane Sollee told her e-list this week.

“Significantly, the legislative votes were unanimous at every stage of the process — truly bipartisan support,” she said, noting that there will be several presentations about “divorce reconciliation” at the upcoming Smart Marriages/Happy Families Conference in Orlando, Fla.

There was dissent from some Minnesota divorce lawyers, however. Family lawyers in the Minnesota State Bar Association voted against endorsing the project, according to an April report by Minnesota Public Radio.

“Is it really the job of our government to act as a counselor?” divorce lawyer Jason C. Brown wrote on the Minnesota Divorce & Family Law Blog in April.

“As a firm with boots on the ground in local courts, it seems the money proposed for this legislative initiative could be set aside for more useful domestic abuse, co-parenting and alternative dispute-resolution programs,” he added.

Mr. Doherty, who is nationally known for his innovative work for marriage, said it’s time to develop reconciliation counseling for couples on the edge of divorce.

Currently, couples are assumed to either want to work on their marriages or get a divorce, Mr. Doherty said in his outline. Marriage counseling and divorce counseling have been developed to serve those two needs.

But if a couple is somewhere in the middle of those choices, poorly designed marriage counseling can frustrate the couple and inadvertently drive them toward divorce, he said. In contrast, divorce counseling knows exactly what it wants to do.

“For these reasons, we have created a new approach that features short-term coaching” — to help a couple become clear and confident about what they want to do — “and, for those interested in reconciling, a multipart reconciliation plan,” his outline says.



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