11th Dec 2012
Divorce Reform, for the Children’s Sake
by Joshua Mercer
Marriage is challenging for all couples, but it’s especially difficult for military families. The stress and trauma of war affects one spouse while the other has to shoulder the sole responsibility of raising the children.
But a blind study last year revealed that couples in struggling marriages who participated in several hours of a marriage-skills education program experienced a noticeable and positive impact. For couples who learned insights into relationship dynamics, principles of commitment, forgiveness and stress management, the rate of divorce plummeted by 67 percent.
If expanded, this marital-enrichment program could save more families from breaking up. But it might have an even more critical impact. According to Col. Glen Bloomstrom, a former chaplain with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and now an assistant professor and chaplain at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, approximately 75 percent to 85 percent of military suicides are precipitated by relationship loss.
For over 30 years, an organization named PREP has pioneered relationship education. They have been working with the Army for the last ten years to customize their program for military couples. In fact, PREP has tailored their educational program for special audiences, providing both a religious and a secular-based curriculum.
The great success of these marriage-education programs has inspired lawmakers in three states to draft legislation mandating couples to complete these courses before obtaining a divorce.
The legislation, now called the Parental Divorce Reduction Act, is intended to reduce unnecessary divorce. Although some couples reach irreconcilable differences and will split despite intervention, many more could repair a marriage with some appropriate help.
In our current legal climate, no-fault divorce is the law of the land. Because of this, any divorce-reform effort that fundamentally challenges the so-called “right” to divorce is likely to be thrown out by the courts.
That’s the brilliance of how the Parental Divorce Reduction Act is crafted. It focuses only upon couples with minor children in the home. The legislation doesn’t try to establish a state interest in preventing the divorce of a childless couple or an elderly couple whose children are all over the age of 18.
But the state does have an interest in ensuring that minor children are adequately protected. Countless studies have shown the negative effects that divorce has on a couple’s young children. And the long-term effects aren’t the only consideration. In fact, the state has to intervene to ensure that children have their basic day-to-day needs met. The effects of divorce also are expensive for society, as battles over custody and alimony frequently dominate our family courts.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could repair and save more marriages? The economic and societal benefit is undeniable.
Under the Parental Divorce Reduction Act, parents of minor children would be required to participate in four to eight hours of face-to-face divorce-education classes. After completing the courses, parents would need to wait an additional eight months before they could file for divorce. This is stipulated in order to provide some time for reflection and reconciliation.
The legislation provides exceptions in cases of spousal abuse, abandonment, incarceration, and addiction to alcohol or drugs.
The program wouldn’t be a burden on taxpayers, as the courses would cost only $100 to $200 and would be paid by the couples themselves.
If this legislation were to become law, it likely would be challenged in court. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be automatically overturned. It wouldn’t be the first time that our courts have balanced state interests with individual liberties.
If someone doesn't want to participate in the marriage education course, the other spouse could use that to their advantage when battles over custody begin. If a spouse is unwilling to make even a modest attempt to save the marriage, then perhaps they are not as willing to take the effort and sacrifice needed to raise the children.
But marriage education can pay huge dividends. It has for the Army which began aggressively using marriage education courses since military divorces spiked after the Iraqi war started in 2003. Col. Bloomstrom was the command chaplain at Fort Leavenworth at the time, and he “championed the retreat,” noted The New York Times in a profile on military divorces.
If marriage education can make a noticeable difference in military couples who endear significant hardships, just imagine what it can do with married men and women in our communities.
Joshua Mercer is Director of Communications and co-founder of CatholicVote.org, a grassroots organization that provides a voice in politics for hundreds of thousands of lay Catholics. Previously, he served as Chairman of Students for Life of America and also Washington Correspondent for the National Catholic Register.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.