Recently, Family Research Council hosted Mike McManus, Beverly Willett, and Dr. Hilary Towers as they spoke on the issue of divorce and divorce reform. If you’ve got dishes to do or a long walk somewhere, I highly recommend you give it a listen—the video is archived here.
I work as an editor at FRC’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute, and most of my work involves me being bombarded day after day with the reality of intact marriage’s superiority in generating good life outcomes. This isn’t to say that marrying just anyone is a better idea than being single, or that all marriages are healthy, or that some non-intact households don’t produce beautiful things and strong children. But when you examine the issue from the perspective of national surveys, it’s clear that intact marriage is best for thelong-termhealth ofthe economy, for the viability of the American economic safety net, and for our children’s educational performance. Simple descriptive statistics are highly suggestive of intact marriage’s benefits. By contrast, children are particularly damaged by divorce.
Popular wisdom asserts that how spouses divorce, rather than whether or not they divorce, is what matters, but as our presenters noted, the available information shows that this just isn’t the case. The problem is that under half of American kids enjoy, undisturbed, the peace and security of knowing that mommy and daddy are there, and they aren’t going anywhere. As Mike McManus mentioned in his presentation, over 1.1 million divorces took place in the U.S. in 2009—up 100,000 from 2005. The divorce rate across the nation is around 50 percent (this includes second, third, etc. marriages, which break up at a higher rate than first marriages).
The beauty of the lecture was spending over an hour hearing an activist, an attorney, and a psychologist explain what they’re doing (or what you can do) to strengthen marriage. Only read on if you feel like being really encouraged.
Mike McManus founded an organization called Marriage Savers, whose goal is to cut down divorce and cohabitation and encourage marriage. Faith leaders in 229 cities across America have signed onto Marriage Savers’ community pledge, committing to reduce divorce in their congregations. Their organization trains married couples who have had troubles to mentor other couples before and through marriage, and through struggles as they encounter them. These mentoring couples also help other couples reconcile in the case of separation and strengthen stepfamilies. (MacManus supports this sort of couple-to-couple relationship, which can offer troubled spouses concrete help, over therapy or marital counseling, which he says seems to actually increase the divorce rate.) In the first 112 cities where marriage pledges were instituted, divorce rates were found to have fallen. There’s also reason to believe that the cohabitation rate fell and the marriage rate rose in these cities.
Beverly Willett, who spoke very honestly and movingly about the personal damage “unilateral” divorce has inflicted in her life, is the co-chairman of the nonpartison Coalition for Divorce Reform. The Coalition is working to reduce “unnecessary divorce,” to strengthen marriages, and to pass their model legislation in state legislatures, which is called the Parental Divorce Reduction Act. This model legislation targets marriages not marked by violence, alcoholism, or infidelity, particularly those with minor children. It institutes a waiting period for spouses, during which they will receive help and counseling and information about the effects of divorce. States can set aside Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to help couples pay for these classes, if they can’t afford them. This period of “reflection and reconciliation” is common elsewhere in the world; if a divorce is contested in Great Britain and France, McManus noted, a five-year or six-year waiting period is required. By contrast, in about half of American states, spouses must follow either no waiting period or a very short waiting period (e.g., 60 days).
Dr. Hilary Towers talked extensively on the subject of marital commitment, which she defined as “resolve to persist in a relationship—a long-term orientation toward a relationship." Towers identified commitment as the single most important factor to a relationship’s survival, noting that committed spouses tend to make sacrifices, and to engage in healthy, natural defense mechanisms against infidelity. This involves building a healthy wall of protection between oneself and others of the opposite sex, devaluing “alternatives” to one’s spouse, and rating one’s own relationship as superior. I’d argue that this is a learned framework—one that those of us who are married should actively develop. And though this may sound like rather chilly wisdom, what happens when you toy around with other options once you’ve made your vows is so common that even the movies get it right. Remember how well that scene in He’s Just Not that Into Youwith Bradley Cooper and Scarlett Johansson justifying their right to be “friends” ended? (If you haven’t seen it, the answer is “not well.”)
When the panelists took questions, one attendee posed one that I think arises in everyone’s minds when the subject of ending marriage is under discussion: What happens to kids whose parents don’t divorce but who fight? Aren’t they scarred from watching their parents fight? How does that teach them how to conduct healthy relationships? The most common answer—that kids need to be sheltered from their parents’ differences—is frequently used as a justification for divorce. To this question, Mike McManus responded that, about 86 percent of the time, couples who choose not to divorce see their relationships improve. Dr. Towers added that conflict doesn’t damage kids’ risk of staying married—divorce does. The answer is simple enough: seeing parents hold to their vows and stick out difficult times may give their children strength to do the same. Children whose parents communicated or related to one another poorly can improve their communication and relationship skills. But what can they do when their only example of marriage involves one person completely bailing on the other?
We all want to be happy. We all want our children to be happy. And some differences truly do seem irreconcilable. But as Beverly Willett explained in one particularly poignant moment, “second and third marriages also fail at a greater rate than first marriages. So we know that ditching our spouse and eat-praying-and-loving our way to the next one is not the way.” Society is organic: our choices don’t just affect us. In his presentation, Mike McManus quoted Michael Reagan on broken marriage: “Divorce is where two adults take everything that matters to a child—the child’s home, family, security, and sense of being loved and protected—and they smash it all up, leave it in ruins on the floor, and then walk out and leave the child to clean up the mess.” And as Dr. Towers noted, commitment or lack thereof tends to reproduce itself in children and affects those around us. Children of divorce have an exaggerated perception of marital conflict, and those who are closely connected with divorcé(e)s are themselves more likely to divorce. Our friends and family, Dr. Towers added, need to see us leading “honest, faithful, upright married lives.”
And this, I think, is the answer. Those of us who are married are obligated to demonstrate that it can work, that it can be done, for the sake of our children and our loved ones. Those whose marriages are strong need to offer hope and a hand up to those who are married and struggling. Those who are not married should be protective of the hearts of those who are married. And we should all think seriously, while working to change our culture, about what can be done in our legislature to help struggling families and children.Media: