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States ponder ways to fortify matrimony; Proposals have included 'drivers ed for marriage,' repeal of no-fault divorce


Weary of the social and economic costs of divorce, government is venturing into territory traditionally held by church and family and searching for ways to strengthen marriage.

A new Florida law compels high schools to offer "marriage and relationship" skills classes.

Louisiana and Arizona couples can choose stricter "covenant marriage" vows, which typically require counseling before the wedding and legally limit the conditions for a divorce.

Last year, lawmakers in 17 other states also pushed for covenant marriage, according to Pam Greenberg of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many states, she said, also considered measures such as mandatory counseling before marriage or divorce, the repeal of no-fault divorce laws and courses on how to be a parent.

"Some type of divorce reform will probably exist in almost every state in the next 10 to 15 years," said Steven Nock, a University of Virginia sociologist who is studying the effects of Louisiana's new law.

The "save-marriages" effort reflects a number of factors: a feeling that U.S. families are breaking down, a desire among conservative and liberal politicians to address popular social issues, and a backlash against the growing acceptance of divorce and the past two decades of no-fault divorce laws.

"Times change," said John Crouch, executive director of Americans for Divorce Reform, a lobbying group in Arlington, Va. It took a decade for economists and sociologists to study the effects of liberalized attitudes toward divorce, Crouch believes, and another decade for policy-makers to say: "We screwed up. We went too far."

In recent years, the U.S. divorce rate has been in decline. When it peaked in the early 1980s, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that half of all marriages would end in divorce. Now that ratio is 40 percent.

Still, the rate is far higher than it was in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, giving rise to a certain militancy around the idea of strengthening marriage. It's a militancy that has made for interesting alliances and divisions.

"It's not a left or right type of issue," said Crouch.

Some conservatives who in other cases argue for less government are urging states to enact covenant marriage laws.

Other conservatives worry that creating any new marriage option might open the door to other avenues they oppose, such as gay marriage.

Women's groups might be expected to embrace counseling requirements and tougher divorce laws because of the financial hardships many women and children suffer as a result of divorce.

Yet Trudie Hays, president of the Louisiana branch of the National Organization for Women, takes a dim view of her state's new covenant marriage law.

She believes marriage serves men better than it does women and that the institution should be "rebuilt from the ground up."

Crouch traces his interest in strengthening marriages to his experience as a divorce lawyer, during which he has seen how "economically awful it is for people."

Divorce is also costly for state and local governments, one of the arguments used by those who back laws to strengthen marriage and discourage divorce. Nock estimates that for every three or four divorces, one family ends up on welfare.

In Lenawee County, Mich., state District Judge James Sheridan was motivated by another reason. He became tired of marrying obviously ill-prepared couples.

In June 1997, Sheridan required premarital inventory tests, which identify areas of agreement and disagreement, and instruction in such areas as conflict resolution for couples seeking a civil marriage in the county.

He was adopting the kind of "community marriage policy" in use by church leaders in scores of cities. Under these alliances, the ministers won't marry a couple until they complete a marriage preparedness program.

Diane Sollee, a marriage therapist and head of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington, also advocates widespread "drivers ed for marriage."

She'd like to see short courses covering topics like conflict resolution, constructive complaining and mutual appreciation offered not only in high schools, but also at churches, military bases and childbirth classes.

"Anybody can learn these skills in two days," she said.

"The most exciting thing states could do," she added, "is make marriage education free and drop-in."

But she is quick to hail any effort in that direction, from Florida's marriage education law to Louisiana's covenant marriage option.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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