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Reducing Unnecessary Divorce

In her 1968 country tear-jerker about her divorce, Tammy Wynette sang about her son and about-to-be ex-husband: “I love you both and this will be pure H-E-double-L for me. Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

New research shows that Tammy is not alone.

Working with the Institute for American Values, principal investigators Professor William Doherty of the University of Minnesota and retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears discovered that “about 40 percent of couples already deeply into the divorce process report that one or both spouses are interested in the possibility of reconciliation.”

According to their study, “Second Chances: A Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce,” this means that a significant number of divorces are preventable and thus unnecessary.

Most people believe that divorce is the result of long-term marital strife, but this turns out to be false. As Dr. Doherty and Justice Sears wrote in the Washington Post: “[O]nly a minority of divorcing couples experience high conflict and abuse during their marriages. Most divorces occur with couples who have drifted apart and handle everyday disagreements poorly.”

And they add, “It is these ‘average’ divorces that research shows are the most harmful to children.” And because the state has a compelling interest in the wellbeing of children, the state also has a compelling interest in preventing these unnecessary divorces.

That’s why Doherty and Sears have gone beyond research to develop a proposal for changing state laws.

First, they recommend a one-year waiting period before a divorce is granted. The decision to divorce is often made when emotions are hot. Once the papers are filed, couples find themselves on what Justice Sears calls “the divorce superhighway.”

As a result, couples find they don’t have the time, the tools or the space to reconsider. A slower road, especially for couples with children, will allow couples to consider the consequences of divorce against other options.

Second, they recommend a mandatory early warning letter from the spouse intent on filing for divorce. It’s a way of putting the other spouse on notice that “we have a problem” before the legal wheels begin turning. And it would trigger mandatory pre-filing education for parents of minor children.

Doherty and Sears go on to recommend that couples contemplating divorce have access to marriage reconciliation services whether they use them or not. While many couples with troubled marriages seek counseling, most therapists aren’t adequately trained in couples counseling and many feel they should be neutral on the question of divorce. Second Chances recommends proper training and a pro-marriage bias for counselors.

Second Chances is “a modest proposal” to reduce divorce, and I am all for it. My question for Christians and for churches is, why wait for a new law? Do we really believe that marriage was instituted by God, that He intended it for human flourishing, and that marriage and the family unit are the cornerstones of civilization?

Then, for heaven’s sake, let’s use our creativity and gifts to do everything we can to help struggling married couples stay together.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication date: November 9, 2011

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