February 25, 2002

February 25, 2002 | WebMemo on Family and Marriage

Why is it in the Government's Interest to Save Marriages?

As President of Marriage Savers, a national non-profit organization whose goal is to reduce the divorce rate, strengthen marriages and restore hope to children in distressed marriages I enthusiastically endorse House Bill 1301 Sponsored by Rep. Gary Hopper and Reps. Hills, Gillman, Graf, Stohl, Coos, Boyce, Roberge, Johnson and Matthew Quandt.

This bill would permit no-fault divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences for couples without minor children. However, if there are minor children, the person who wants a divorce would have to prove the other person is at fault having committed adultery, been arrested for a felony or been physically abusive. New Hampshire could lead America in reforming unilateral divorce.

As President Bush asserted last year, "We know that children who grow up with absent fathers can suffer lasting damage. They are more likely to end up in poverty or drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out-of- wedlock or end up in prison." Statistically, children of divorce are twice as likely as those from intact homes to drop out of school and are six times as likely to be poor or to commit suicide. Fatherless girls are three times as apt to give birth to out-of-wedlock children themselves, expanding the welfare culture into the next generation.

Contemporary culture says, "All families are loving." From a child's perspective, that is not true. Males from fatherless homes often grow up angry and immersed in crime. Those from divorced homes are 12.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than those from intact homes. Those born out-of-wedlock are 22 times more at risk to be incarcerated. Another study says that children living with their mothers are 14 times more likely to be physically abused.

Impact of Divorce on Children

In their landmark book, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, begin by saying, "In America over the last thirty years, we've done something unprecedented. We have managed to transform marriage, the most basic and universal of human institutions, into something controversial."

They cite a widespread myth, that "Divorce is usually the best answer for kids when a marriage becomes unhappy." For example the 1998 edition of a best-seller, Creative Divorce, by Mel and Pat Krantzler, erroneously states, "Many parents may indeed stay together because they believe divorce will harm their children. What they fail to realize is that ... more harm will result from `staying together' than divorcing."

Frankly that is a flat-out rationalization. "It works as long as we avoid talking to the children," says Dr. Judith Wallerstein, who began her study of 60 families who were divorcing two years after California legalized no fault divorce, in 1971. These families had 131 children, who were all doing well in school at the time of divorce. The families were from middle to upper class. "The children had no idea that divorce was coming." Nevertheless, Dr. Wallerstein believed, as did most psychologists and sociologists at the time, that "The impact will be short-lived if the parents refrain from fighting. The children's natural resiliency will come into play."

Dr. Wallerstein interviewed both parents and children at the time of divorce and five years later. The wounds were so stunningly raw, contrary to her expectations, that she interviewed everyone 10 years after the divorce, and again at the 15 year mark. She wrote a major book, Second Chances, in which she said, "Children feel intensely rejected when their parents divorce: "He left Mom. He doesn't care about me."

Dr. Wallerstein was "surprised to discover that the severity of a child's reaction at the time of the parents' divorce does not predict how that child will fare five, ten and even fifteen years later....Girls seem to fare much better psychologically than boys. A sleeper effect in females surfaced of troubles they are experiencing now at entrance into young adulthood (which) came as a complete surprise. Girls who have been betrayed or abandoned by a lover fear betrayal and abandonment...Many find maladaptive ways to cope. Some take many lovers at one time. Others seek
out older men who are less likely to betray a younger woman." Many cohabit rather than wait for engagement.

"Ten years after divorce, close to one-half of the boys (now 19-29 years old) are unhappy, lonely, and have few, if any lasting relationships with women...One out of three young men and one of ten young women between the ages 19 and 23 at the ten year mark are delinquent, meaning they act out their anger in a range of illegal activities including assault, burglary, arson, drug dealing, theft, drunk driving, and prostitution," wrote Ms. Wallerstein in Second Chances.

What happened to those children of divorce when they grew up? Dr. Wallerstein interviewed 100 of those children who had been between 2 and 18, when they were aged 27 to 43. If you are an adult child of divorce, a divorced person, someone considering divorce, or anyone professionally involved, such as judges, lawyers pastors or legislators - you must read The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce by Dr. Judith Wallerstein with Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee. This top ten bestseller, America's only longitudinal study of divorce, is profoundly disturbing and shatters five major myths about divorce and children:

Myth 1:
If parents are happier after divorce, the children will be too. In fact, children of divorce become more aggressive than those in intact homes, suffer more depression, have more learning difficulties, are more promiscuous, bear more children born out of wedlock, are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce.

Myth 2:
Divorce is a temporary crisis whose most harmful impact is at the time of divorce. A related myth is that if the parents don't fight in front of the children after divorce, and show love for them, they will be all right. But as Dr. Wallerstein writes, only after observing these children grow into adulthood, did she see the whole picture: ''Divorce is a life-transforming experience...The whole trajectory of an individual's life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience...The divorced family has an entirely new cast of characters and relationships featuring stepparents and stepsiblings, second marriages and second divorces, and often a series of live-in lovers. The child who grows up in a postdivorce family often experiences not one loss - that of the intact family - but a series of losses as people come and go.''

In fact, adult childrens' new world is ''far less reliable, more dangerous place because the closest relationships in their lives can no longer be expected to hold firm.'' Most lost not only a father, but their mother as well as she became fully engaged in rebuilding her life economically, socially and sexually. Parenting cut loose from marriage is ''less stable, more volatile, less protective.''

Myth 3:
The best time to divorce is when children are very young. In fact, ''youngest children tend to suffer the most. At an age when they need constant protection and loving nurturance, these young children have parents in turmoil.'' Half of the million children whose parents divorce annually are under the age of six.

Wallerstein depicts Paula whose whole world collapsed. Her father was an affluent pharmacist, an attentive husband and parent. Her mother devoted herself to Paula, active in her school activities, taking her to swimming lessons. After her father's business went bankrupt, he disappeared. Her mother, able only get a minimum wage job, transformed from a cheerful person into a strained, desperately tired, silent and resentful woman with no time for Paula. Only as an adult could Paula put the magnitude of these losses into words: ''Suddenly there was no one there. I spent so much time alone that I tried to become my own company. But how can you do that as a four-year-old child? I would go for days without saying a word.''

Myth 4:
The major impact of divorce occurs in childhood or adolescence. Untrue. It is ''in adulthood the children of divorce suffer the most. The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment... nxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding'' all relationships.

At 15, Paula dressed like a slut, boasted about being high every day on drugs or alcohol and was very promiscuous. Six years later she was living with a man whom she planned to marry. Why? ''He loves me, he's kinda hyper, and he likes to party. I said to him, `It's my birthday, marry me.'' They had a child who was neglected in their drinking bouts. After a divorce, she was in the same spot as her mother years earlier - ''no money, no training, no home, with a child to support.''

By contrast, ''many young men from divorced families are immobilized,'' not having had any relationships. This is a major reason the number of never-married Americans has doubled from 21 million in 1970 to 47 million in 1997.

Myth 5:
Staying in an unhappy marriage is not good for children. Wallerstein interviewed friends of those whose parents divorced, children who went to the same schools but whose parents remained intact, even when marriages were unhappy. Those children were far more likely to go to college, to marry, and to be happy than children of divorce. Few realize that ''children can be reasonably content despite the failing marriage,'' she says. But if they divorce, ''the parents have failed at a central task of adulthood,'' which builds in their children a fear, `If they failed, I can fail too.'''

Even 25 years after their parents' divorce, their adult children say, "My childhood ended with my parents' divorce." Of the 60 fathers, 57 remarried and stopped child support when their children reached 18. Few of the children attained the college or graduate education of their affluent fathers. (However, fathers underwrote the college education costs of their stepchildren and their children from a second marriage but rarely their own children from a first marriage.)

Children sadly concluded that ties between men and women "can break capriciously, without warning," which gives them no confidence in building relationships with the opposite sex. Consequently, they are terrified of conflict and tend to explode or run away. What has not been recognized until this book was published is that from the viewpoint of children, "divorce is a cumulative experience. Its impact increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood"affecting "the personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships and ability to cope with change." Only 60 percent married; and many of them divorced.

The legal system compounds these staggering problems in two damaging ways according to Wallerstein. Visitation plans treat the child "like a rag doll that quietly sits wherever it is
placed." Kids are locked into inflexible court-ordered visitation that is not adjusted as children get older. Though its aim is to allow the child to get to know and love the absent parent, what grows is resentment at being taken away from their own friends and activities. As adults they no longer want to see the absent parent.

The legal system also allows child support to stop at age 18. "Many young people consider the cutoff at age 18 the worst hit of their parents' divorce. They tell me bitterly, 'I paid for my folks's divorce,'" Wallerstein writes. Only 29 percent received full or consistent partial support for college compared to 89 percent of their friends living in intact families. Divorced parents offer no explanation or apology for their failure to help. Further, children of divorce are often denied scholarship aid because their father's income is too high!

Impact of Divorce on Adults

According to James J. Lynch, author of A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness, published in 2000, adults who divorce also suffer much more than is realized. For every major cause of death, "the rates for divorced males ranged anywhere from two to six times higher than their married counterparts." The rates are double for the big killers of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, lung and intestinal cancer. Divorced men drink more heavily, and are seven times more apt to die of cirrohisis of the liver and four times more likely to be killed in car crashes than married men. Divorced men are also four times more likely to die of suicide, nine-fold more apt to succumb to pneumonia and homicide, and 10 times more likely to die of tuberculosis.

Women who divorce are much more apt to die of all forms of cancer compared to married women. Women are 49% more likely to have cancer of the lungs, 67% more apt to die of cancer of the buccal cavity and pharynx and 238% more at risk of succumbing to cervix or uterine cancer than a married woman of the same age.

These are immense, unreported consequences of divorce. A smoker is only twice as likely to die in any given year as a person who does not smoke. That is such a huge increased risk that the Surgeon General required cigarette manufacturers to put on the label of every pack that "Smoking is dangerous to your health."

Perhaps you legislators ought to stamp on every divorce certificate, "Divorce is dangerous to your health."

Marriage: The Key to Health, Wealth, Long Life

The problems with divorce can seem overwhelming. However, it is worth fighting the fight. America seems to have forgotten the value of marriage for adults as well as children. As Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite have documented in their important 2000 book, The Case for Marriage, people who are married are happier than those who are single, much wealthier, healthier and live longer. They also have better sex!

Life: A man aged 48 who is married has an 83% chance of living to age 65; but a divorced man's odds are only 63%. Women have a similar though not as drastic consequence if they divorce. Why? Divorced people are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, for example. Such people are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, cancer, be in automobile accidents or commit suicide, as indicated in the book The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Lonelinessby J.J. Lynch. The never-married live the shortest lives both men and women.

Happiness:
Married people are twice as likely as those who are single for whatever reason to say they are "very happy." Some 38% of married couples say they are very happy, compared to 14% of divorced men and 18% of divorced women, and 18% of the separated. The surprise is that married people are nearly twice as apt as never-married (38% vs. 21%) to say they are very happy. That is not the message of "Friends" and other TV sitcoms which glamorize adults who jump in bed with someone new every weekend.

Wealth:
A married couple in their 50s in 1994 had net assets of $132,000, but a divorced person, only $33,600 and a separated person, only $7,600. What is particularly surprising is that a never-married person aged 50-60 has assets of only $36,000, about one-fourth of the wealth of a married couple who spent thousands to raise their children.

Sex:
"Married sex really is better sex," report Waite and Gallagher. "Married women are almost twice as likely as divorced or never-married women to have a sex life that (a) exists and (b) is extremely emotionally satisfying." Some 43 percent of married men had sex at least twice a week vs. only 26 percent of single men.

Legislative Remedies

It is time to change laws. I would like to propose these legislative changes:

1. Court-ordered visitation plans should be reviewed every five years, with the child given a larger voice as he/she grows older. The present system which is designed to give the non-custodial parent access and influence upon the child's life becomes like a straight jacket to a teenager. The majority of children of divorce find the experience so horrible most no longer want to see the absent parent after age 18. That is in no one's interest not the child nor either parent.

2. Child support should also be mandated to continue until age 22 if the student is enrolled in full-time study. At just the time when the need for child support grows exponentially, seven out of ten absent parents discontinue child support. This outrageous, cruel abandonment by parents of their own children should be prohibited by law, not sanctioned by it.

3. Unilateral divorce of couples with children should be ended. We need to give as much time, energy and resources to protecting children and marriage as we give to protecting the environment. When no-fault divorce was first passed by California in 1969 it was sold as a way to reduce the anger and contentiousness of divorce, to protect the children. Examples were given of couples who both longed for divorce, but had to pretend one or the other had committed adultery in order to get divorced.

Divorce lawyers persuaded legislature after legislature almost without debate, that no fault divorce was a humane reform. In fact, no fault divorce should be called unilateral divorcebecause in four out of five cases, one person wants out and the other wants the marriage continue. Certainly all of the children want their parents to remain together. I am urging you, as the Legislature to take a stand on behalf of those children whose lives are permanently twisted by the divorce -- and on behalf of the spouse who wants reconciliation. In New Hampshire, only one partner has to declare that there are "irreconcilable differences" for there to be a divorce. The other person does not have the right to argue, "Our differences are not irreconcilable. We have problems, but I am willing to go seek help to resolve our differences."

Divorce is the only civil contract in which one person can cancel the contract with impunity. If you buy a car with a commitment to pay if off in four years, you can not go back to the dealer and say, "I don't want this car any more. I want a new model. Take this old car back and give me the money I've already paid in." The dealer would laugh. Any equity which has been built up by two years of payments is lost. A big penalty payment would have to be made.

However a husband can tell an older wife, the marriage is over, because he has fallen in love with a new younger model. The children will suffer a one-third cut in the resources available to them and may be cast into poverty along with their mother. Half of all children on welfare are there because of a failed marriage. The father can force the sale of the house, and take out half his equity and use it as a down payment on a new house for his new wife. So the children lose their father, his income, and are forced to move to a smaller home in a worse neighborhood. Their lives are not only shattered at the time, but, as Dr. Wallerstein notes, the "unexpected legacy of divorce," is that its impact "rises to a crescendo in adulthood."

The Reform of Unilateral Divorce

I am not suggesting that no-fault or unilateral divorce be abolished. HB 1301 would notattempt to roll back 30 years of history. Consider a man and woman who marry at age 25. Either would have the freedom to divorce at, say, age 28 without the consent of the other, if this legislation becomes law provided they have had no children. But if, after those three years, they decide to have children they should be making a commitment to one another at least until that child is raised. The child is the innocent and for too long, the ignored victim of the selfishness of the parents.

Before unilateral divorce was legal, if the man wanted a divorce, his wife had leverage. She could refuse to agree to the divorce, and tell her husband, "I forgive you for your adultery. Let's go to counseling to work on the marriage." He, of course, could make her life miserable. But she could hold out for full ownership of the family home and for alimony payments in addition to child support, so that she could afford to stay in the house. A man or woman whose spouse swore an oath for better for worse, in richer and in poorer, in sickness and in health till death do us part deserves to have an equal voice in court in an attempt to save the marriage, especially if children are involved.

How would this work, as a practical matter? If the couple has children, they can still become divorced if one has committed adultery, been physically abusive of the spouse or children, or been convicted of a felony and is sent to prison. However, Professor Paul Amato of Johns Hopkins has found that "Very few people getting divorced mention serious problems, such as mental abuse, violence, alcohol or drug problems. Instead, people mention:

'We have been growing apart.
We don't feel as close as we once were.
The quality of our communication is not as good as it should be.'

Amato has been conducting a longitudinal study in which he has interviewed 2000 married people in 1980, 1983, 1988, 1992, 1997, and 2000. He has interviewed the children of these marriages after they reach 19. The majority of 691 children grew up with continuously married parents. Some 21% experienced divorce and 15% were in homes where the parents stayed married, but had unresolved conflict. Amato confirms that children experiencing divorce reached adulthood with less education, are not as close to their parents, have more symptoms of depression, and were less happy. He confirms that fewer marry and if they do, are more likely to divorce themselves.

What is surprising about his findings is that of 295 couples who divorced, only 40% were in marriages with very low happiness, with few positive interactions and much conflict. In 60% of the divorces, the couple's happiness was average. Their positive interaction is average. They had no more than average conflict. In other words, three out of five couples who divorce are no more unhappy or conflicted than married couples who stayed together!

Such couples do not have sufficient reason to condemn their children.. In these marriages which Amato calls "good enough marriages," the unilateral decision of one partner to walk out is unexpected, stunning and inexplicable. He said, "Most children don't care about midlife crisis; they don't care about how deep the level is of their parents' self-actualization. They want regular access to both parents. Many of these good enough marriages can be salvaged."

What About Being Trapped in a Bad Marriage?

What about those couples who are profoundly unhappy? Should they be forced to stay together? I offer three answers.

My first answer is that the vast majority of even terrible marriages can be saved with remarkably little effort. Let me give two examples:.

1. Retrouvaille is a weekend retreat in which couples whose marriages once nearly failed, who I call "back-from-the-brink" couples -- share details about how they overcame years
of adultery, alcoholism, neglect, verbal or physical abuse, and have gone on to build great marriages. The results are spectacular. Of 2,000 couples who have attended in
Michigan, a third had already filed divorce papers, yet 80% rebuilt their marriages. Two-fifths of more than 1,000 couples in Fort Worth had already separated or divorced, yet 70% reconciled and are still together. Buffalo's Retrouvaille has saved 90% of its
marriages. Nationally, about 60,000 couples have attended Retrovaille, and on average, 4 of 5 marriages are saved. The nearest Retrouvaille will be held in Massachusetts this
weekend. If you know a couple whose marriage is headed for divorce, have them call Van and Page Vandewater at 617 782-5626. The only charge is for motel costs. The volunteer couples leading the weekend donate their time, out of a gratitude to God that their marriages were saved.

2. Marriage Ministry is a similar proven way to save couples headed for divorce courts -- but it is based in a local church. St. David's Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Florida trained seven couples whose marriages nearly failed to help those now in trouble. One woman had been in an adulterous affair for eight years. A man was a bisexual, having homosexual affairs on the side. Another man was an alcoholic who lost his job and was
out of work two years. Their pain qualified them to be Mentor Couples who worked with 40 troubled marriages, and they saved 38 of them -- a 95% success rate. My organization, Marriage Savers, has planted this Marriage Ministry in dozens of other
churches with a stunning 90% success rate. We can train back-from-the-brink couples to tell their story to couples in crisis, over a Friday night and all day Saturday.

By contrast with this remarkable track record, professional therapists are no where near as successful. Diane Sollee, the former Associate Director of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, says that therapists save less than 20% of the marriages they work with. In fact, they often counsel couples to divorce, which is outrageous.

Why are lay couples able to save 80% to 90% of marriages when professionally trained counselors are so ineffectual? The major reason marriages fail is selfishness. The major reason the good ones succeed is selflessness. What's needed is conversion, a recognition that one needs to replace selfishness with selflessness. That can best be inspired by seeing couples who once stood on the brink of divorce for very good reasons but then stepped back, and saved their marriage. Like a 12-stepper of Alcoholics Anonymous, a couple who has been in the pits and rebuilt their marriage -- has a credibility that no pastor or counselor has. A couple who had lived through adultery, for example, and remained together can tell a younger couple in crisis because she found out that he was cheating on her: "We know adultery breaks trust. We have been there, done that. But we are here to tell you that trust can be restored. We have done it. Let us tell you how we rebuilt trust. Let us pray with you about this."

Finally, consider a study by Professor Linda Waite, of the University of Chicago, which drew remarkable findings from the National Survey of Families and Households, a huge study of 13,000 people. "Of those couples who said their marriages were very unhappy in 1987, 82% were still married five years later. And if they were still married, 90% said they were very happy! I was surprised that so many who were unhappy were still together, and that the vast majority said their marriage was terrific or very good, though it was the same marriage! The worst marriages showed the most improvement," Dr. Waite says.

Every marriage has bad patches. What's needed is for people to only stick to their vows made at the altar, to remain together "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."

The Divorce Rate of New Hampshire Could be Cut in Half

In most of the country, the divorce rate has come down a little bit. Not in New Hampshire. In 1987 there were 4,811 divorces. In 1993 you had 5,035. That figure grew to 5,601 in 1997 and a stunning 7,201 in 1998. Your divorce rate has soared 43% in only five years! No state has had such a big increase.

My wife and I Co-Chair an organization called Marriage Savers which has persuaded the clergy of 160 cities to adopt reforms in marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and in the reconstruction of bad marriages. The result is that dozens of these cities have slashed their divorce rates. Two metro areas have cut their divorce rates nearly in half after they adopted a "Community Marriage Policy" with our help. Modesto, CA and Kansas City, KS and two suburban counties, have seen their divorce rates plunge 47.6% and 44% respectively.

It might be helpful to summarize our experience at Marriage Savers, a small non-profit organization in helping communities to reduce their divorce rate and strengthen marriage. We are privately funded through honoraria, sales of books, videos and manuals, training, gifts and foundation grants, and to date have received no public funding. Based on our experience I assert that divorce rates can be cut in half and the marriage rate can be increased.

The Church Is The Key to Marriage

Even if the benefits of marriage are known, the assumption of many is that the 50% divorce rate and the declining marriage rate are immutable facts of 21st century America. However, it is possible to change these marriage and divorce rates if organized religion is helped to do a better job, which virtually every pastor longs for.

Three-quarters of all marriages are performed in churches or synagogues. And two-thirds of all Americans are members of a church (69%), according to the Gallup Poll, which also reports that 43% of all Americans attend religious services in any given week. Even higher percentages of African Americans are religiously active, with 55% attending church in an average week, and 48% of Hispanics, reports Gallup! Thus, the church has unparalleled access to most Americans at every level of the socio-economic spectrum.

Yet, half of America's marriages are failing -- a higher rate than any other modern nation. As the writer for two decades of "Ethics & Religion" a nationally syndicated column in secular daily newspapers, I can say with authority that most churches do not have a marriage strategy. In fact, I argue that most churches are "wedding factories" grinding out weddings on Saturday with little thought about whether they will last, and no strategy to enrich or save the existing marriages in their congregations. Pollster George Barna gave evidence in August, 2001 that the divorce rate of Christians is the same as those who do not attend church!

On the other hand, in researching "Ethics & Religion," a syndicated column I have written for 20 years, I have been able to travel across America and report upon dramatic innovations in isolated Catholic and Protestant churches that are reducing the divorce rate. Organized religion is now a complicit partner in the divorce culture. But it can be the driving energy of reform that by 2010, cuts the divorce rate in half, raises the marriage rate by 25% and pushes down the out-of-wedlock rate by a third.

Churches Have Proven Answers

Some churches have developed reforms that are doing a better job preparing couples for a lifelong marriage, strengthening existing marriages or saving troubled ones. I have already mentioned Retrouvaille, which is run by lay Catholics, and Marriage Ministry which was created by Episcopalians. Let me outline three other examples.:

1. Time:
For a generation, most Catholic dioceses have required a minimum time of marriage preparation typically six months from the time a priest first meets with the couple, to the time a wedding can take place. During that time, many couples are asked to take a premarital inventory to give them an objective view of strengths and weaknesses and attend classes on such issues as communication and finances. The results of better
marriage preparation is clear in a recent George Barna survey revealing that no denomination has a lower divorce rate than Catholics.

2. Premarital Inventory:
There are two widely used premarital inventories, FOCCUS and PREPARE, taken by about 400,000 couples a year out of 2.2 million marriages a year. Either can predict with 80% accuracy which couples will divorce. More important, a tenth of those who take either inventory, break their engagements. Studies show their scores are equal to those who marry and later divorce! As a result, those couples who break an engagement avoid a bad marriage before it has begun.

3. Mentor Couples in Marriage Preparation:
At our home Presbyterian church in Bethesda, MD, my wife and I trained 52 Mentor Couples to administer a premarital inventory with seriously dating and engaged couples. From 1992-2000 Marriage Mentors worked with 302 couples. Twenty-one couples dropped out and 34 broke off their relationship or their engagement -- 18% of the total. Thus, many in weak
relationships discovered it on their own and either broke up or worked to strengthen their union. Mentor Couples also taught couples how to improve communication and conflict
resolution. Of those who did marry, there are only seven divorces or separations in nine years, a failure rate of 2.5%.

The core idea of the best programs, is a national treasure, an untapped resource that can be summarized in one phrase, the Mentor Couple, or in one sentence:

In every church there are couples with good marriages who really
could be of help to other couples, but have never been asked, inspired or trained to come alongside another couple and share their wisdom on how to make a marriage successful.

The American Association of Christian Counselors dramatically recognized the importance of this innovation in religious and marital life when it pledged in August, 2001 to train 100,000 Mentor Couples in 10,000 churches over the next five years.

The Modesto Community Marriage Policy

In 1986 I was invited to address the clergy of Modesto, California by The Modesto Bee, which published my Ethics & Religion column. In my speech, I urged the pastors, priests and rabbis of the area to adopt what I called a "Community Marriage Policy " with the conscious goal of "pushing down the area's divorce rate." I noted that some churches were already taking steps to lower the divorce rate. Catholics, for example, required six months of marriage preparation, while most Protestants set no time requirement. Catholics were also the first to train couples in solid marriages to help prepare couples for a marriage. They are called "sponsor couples" or "mentor couples." Catholics also typically require engaged couples to take a "premarital inventory" that can predict with 80% accuracy who will divorce. And a tenth of those taking an inventory, break an engagement.

I pointed out that the states with America's lowest divorce rates are the predominantly Catholic states of the Northeast. (It may comes as a shock to you that the divorce rate of liberal Massachusetts is about one-third that of Oklahoma, and one half that of New Hampshire.) I also noted that Catholics were also the first to start "Marriage Encounter," which prompts four out of five couples to fall back in love. Further, a dozen Protestant denominations now conduct Marriage Encounters: Episcopalians, Methodists, Assemblies of God, Lutherans, Baptists, Mennonites, etc. I asked, "Why doesn't every church plan an annual event like a Marriage Encounter to strengthen the existing marriages in the church?"

Further, I made a prediction: "If the churches and synagogues of Modesto were to implement what we know works to prepare for a lifelong marriage, or strengthen existing ones, I believe the divorce rate here would come down 50% in five years. Why do I say so? Europe's divorce rate is about half that of the U.S. and less than 10% of the people in such countries as Great Britain, France or Germany attend religious services in any given week. The Gallup Poll reports that four out of ten adults in America are in church or synagogue in any week. With a church attendance that is four times that of Europe, we ought to be able to at least reduce our divorce rate to the level of England, France or Germany, where few attend church."

Some 95 pastors, priests and a rabbi in Modesto did agree to create America's first Community Marriage Policy . In the preamble of their covenant, the clergy stated, "It is the
responsibility of pastors to set minimal requirements to raise the quality of commitment in those we marry. We believe that couples who participate in premarital testing and counseling will have a better understanding of what the marriage commitment involves. As agents of God, we feel it is our responsibility to encourage couples to set aside time for marriage preparation instead of only concentrating on wedding plans. We acknowledge that a wedding is but a day while a marriage is for a lifetime." Specifically, clergy is required "a minimum of four months of preparation" during which all couples would
be asked to take a premarital inventory "to help the couple evaluate the maturity of their relationship objectively" and study relevant Biblical doctrines on marriage and divorce.

Clergy pledged to provide "a mature married couple" to help couples to bond.

On the 11th anniversary of the signing in 1997, Modesto clergy invited my wife, Harriet, and I back to Modesto where the clergy agreed to add elements to their Community Marriage Policy based on the evolution of the concept in many other cities:

Premarital couples were asked to take a premarital course which would cover God's plan for marriage, communication and conflict resolution skills, financial management and intimacy in marriage.

Churches were urged to develop resources for singles that address issues related to dating, selecting a spouse and friendship to help prepare them for the premarital process.

Newlyweds are encouraged to meet with Mentor Couples four times during their first year of marriage.

Special courses/workshops were developed for couples creating stepfamilies.

Couples in troubled marriages were to be referred to Retrouvaille, and other proven courses including a locally developed Reconciling God's Way ministry in which even
separated couples save their marriages with same gender mentoring, men with men, and women, women.

In the initial 1986 agreement pastors said, "Our hope is to radically reduce the divorce rate of those married in area churches." (Emphasis added.)

Modesto Divorce Rate Plunges 47.6%

Much more than that goal has been achieved. The divorce rate for the entire Modesto metro area has plunged 47.6% -- nearly cut in half, as I predicted. True, it has taken 15 years, not five. Yet this is clear evidence that the strategy called Community Marriage Policy works.

According to the Stanislaus County Clerk, the number of divorces in 2000 is 24% less than the 1986 number, even though the population has grown from 307,000 to 441,400, a 43% increase in the county's population over 15 years. By measuring the number of divorces per 1,000 population in both years, a consistent comparable figure emerges. The rate fell from 6 divorces per 1,000 residents in 1986 to 3.16 divorces per 1000 people in 2000, or 47.6%. If Modesto's divorce rate had remained at the U.S. average, there would be 1,250 more divorces per year!

Modesto Marriage Rate Rises 13.6%

There is a second important story in this data. Note that in 1986 there were more divorces in Modesto than marriages -- 1,852 divorces and only 1,391 marriages! But the Community Marriage Policy reversed that trend by pushing up the marriage rate. In 2000, there were 2,273 marriages, a big jump from 1,391. While most of the growth of marriages is attributable to the area's remarkable population growth, the marriage rate has increased 13.6%. By contrast, the U.S. marriage rate has been declining. It fell 17.8% nationally, in the years Modesto's marriage rate has moved in the opposite direction by 13.6%. Thus, there are 882 more marriages a year now in Stanislaus County.

Teen Dropout and Birth Rates Plunge

With 1,250 fewer divorces and 882 more marriages per year, more than 2,100 homes are keeping intact or are being created in Stanislaus County. That means fewer children are at risk.

Children of divorce are twice as likely as those from intact families to drop out of school and are three times as likely to give birth out-of-wedlock. If divorce rates fall and marriage rates rise, more children will be successful. That should be measurable. And it is. In fact, within just seven years, school dropouts in Stantislaus County fell 20% and births to teenagers plunged 30%, or about twice the U.S. decline in those years.

More marriages and better marriages are an answer to a child's prayer and to that of parents, pastors and yes, even government officials.

Marriage Savers will return to Modesto in the spring to train Mentor Couples from as many churches as possible with the conscious goal to push down divorce rates there another 50%!

Divorces Plunge in 32 Cities with Community Marriage Policies

Nor is Modesto's achievement unique. Some 150 cities have now adopted a Community Marriage Policy or a Community Marriage Covenant as some cities call them. Divorces have plunged in 33 of 35 cities where a Community Marriage Policy has been established, and data on divorces has been checked with county clerks. In each of the 33 cities, divorces fell at least 10 times more than they have in the United States! U.S. divorces have fallen from 1,181,000 in 1979 to 1,163,000 in 1997, a decline of only 1.5% in 19 years. By contrast, in an average city such as Baton Rouge, Tallahassee or Springdale, AR divorces fell 6% in one year. That is four times the U.S. drop in one-nineteenth of the time, or 76 times better than the U.S. (4 X 19 = 76).

Further, divorces are falling much faster in more recent cities to create a CMP, than they have in Modesto. Its 47.6% drop is about 3% a year for 15 years. By contrast, divorces fell 18% in Corvallis, OR and by 19% in Chattanooga in three years. El Paso's divorces plummeted from 3,176 to 2,179. That's a one-third decline in three years. More remarkable, divorces plunged in Kansas City, KS and a two suburban counties from 1,530 in 1995 to only 863 in 1999 a stunning 44% plunge in only four years, while divorces actually rose across the river in Kansas City, MO and its suburbs!

What Can Government Do to Reduce the Divorce Rate?

First you can reform no-fault divorce so that it is off limits to parents of minor children. When no-fault divorce laws swept the nation, divorces soared 25% immediately. A reform should roll those numbers back down.

Second, you can use some of your surplus welfare funds to strengthen marriage. Did you know that there were three central goals of the 1996 federal welfare reform law:

"Reduce the dependence of the poor on the government."
"Reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies."
"Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families."

Public attention has focused on the first goal, and there has been remarkable reduction of the poor's dependence on government. Welfare rolls have been cut 58%, an extraordinary achievement. Equally important, black and Hispanic poverty rates are at their lowest rate ever; in fact, black and Hispanic incomes are at all time high. Yet illegitimacy rates have continued to rise, as they have for 60 years. In 1940, only 89,000 babies were born out-of-wedlock. By 1996, when welfare reform was passed by Congress, 1.26 million were born to unmarried parents. By 2000 that figure rose to 1,346,000 babies born out-of-wedlock. The percentage of births to unmarried parents also rose from 32.4 percent to an astonishing 33.1 percent of American births in 2000. That includes 27.1% of white babies and 68.5% of African American babies, a figure "unprecedented for any large subpopulations of any culture, ancient or modern," writes Charles Murray.

Clearly, the best way to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies is to work at that totally overlooked third goal of welfare reform, to "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." How? Increase the marriage rate and decrease the divorce rate, as Modesto has accomplished. In an article that appears in the Summer 2001 issue of Brookings Review, Dr. Wade Horn, the new HHS Assistant Secretary, overseeing welfare, flatly states, "No state has yet made a serious effort" to encourage marriage as "one way to reduce welfare dependency." In fact, 46 states have not spent a penny to promote marriage, including New Hampshire.

What could New Hampshire do? It could earmark some of its surplus of welfare funds, which are now called "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families," or TANF to build marriages in this state? There is a pretty big surplus of TANF funds in New Hampshire. According to the Congressional Research Service, New Hampshire has $9.2 million that could be spent on reducing the divorce rate. Why not set aside one-tenth of that sum -- $900,000 -- to hire a small staff which could work at two levels: public and private:

A: Public employees:
First welfare workers, public health nurses and teachers who have
access to unmarried mothers need to be trained to tell young mothers and mothers-to-be, about: The value of marriage to adults as a creator of health, wealth, longer lives and yes, better sex The value of marriage to children who are more likely to be successful in school, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less apt to become delinquent or pregnant out-of-wedlock if their father is a part of their daily life. Teach how the mothers can improve their communications and conflict resolution skills with the father of the child or children -- a step that would increase the odds their high hopes for marriage will be satisfied. Create the courses that will increase the communications and conflict resolution skills of the parents in courses created with TANF funding

B. Clergy Involvement:
Second, the pastors, priests and rabbis of New Hampshire can be helped to create Community Marriage Policies across the state. At present, there is not one in New Hampshire. Churches need help to train Mentor Couples in the state's 1,000 houses of worship. They have a half million members, some of whom are in excellent marriages who could be trained to be Mentor Couples, who can come alongside couples at every stage of the marital life cycle and help them achieve six great goals::

Avoid a bad marriage before it begins
Give "marriage insurance" to the engaged
Enrich all existing marriages in the congregation
Save 80% to 90% of the most troubled marriages
Reconcile more than half of the separated
Enable four of five stepfamilies to be successful parents and partners.

Marriage Savers' Proposals

We at Marriage Savers recommend a number of actions to the President, the Department of Health and Human Services, and to the Ways and Means Committee that oversees welfare:

1. Set High Goals on Divorce, Marriage and Out-Of Wedlock Birth Rates.

President Kennedy faced a major crisis in April 1961 when the Russians shot an astronaut into orbit around the earth. The U.S. was far behind, having not even put a man in space for a minute. Kennedy's scientific advisers said the Soviet Union was likely to land a man on the moon first, and in the process, would extend its superiority in space. At a time when the federal budget was below $100 billion, experts said it would cost $20 to $40 billion to put a man on the moon, a staggering sum at the time. Nevertheless, Kennedy announced a goal to land an American astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade. He knew it would probably happen after he was out of office, even if re-elected in 1964. Setting the goal was an important first step in mobilizing the public support and Congressional backing needed to catch up and surpass the Russians. It took 400,000 people working for eight years to land Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Similarly, I believe President Bush needs to set some high goals to restore the American family which has been steadily disintegrating since 1960. Therefore, I suggest that the President take a bold step by calling on the nation to:

A. Slash the Divorce Rate by 50% by 2010, saving 600,000 marriages a year.

Two cities have virtually achieved this goal. The clergy of Modesto, CA set a goal in 1986 "to radically reduce the divorce rate," in the nation's first Community Marriage Policy . Its divorce rate has plummeted 47.6%. A second city is Kansas City, KS and a two county suburban area. In only four years, 1995-1999, its divorce rate has plunged 44% since clergy created a Community Marriage Policy (CMP).

B. Increase the Marriage Rate by 25% by 2010, creating 500,000 more marriages a  year.

Again, Modesto, CA yes, the home of Rep. Gary Condit has shown the way.During years when the nation's marriage rate fell 18%, Modesto increased its marriage rate by 13.6%. The number of marriages grew by 882 a year, while the number of divorces fell by 1,250 a year. That has created more than 2100 more solid families per year. The 25% goal may seem high, but if the President inspires the country by setting the goal, and an Ad Council campaign makes a case for marriage and against cohabitation, trends can be bent.

C. Decrease the Out-of-Wedlock Birth Rate by 33% by 2010 so 450,000 more babies are born to married couples.

With more children growing up in secure homes, Modesto's school dropout rate fell 20% and its teen birth rate fell by 30%, double the U.S. decline. Thus marriage is a proven strategy to reduce the number of children at risk in our culture.

If only a third of America's churches and synagogues trained 10 Mentor Couples each, there would be a million Mentor Couples. Surely, they could save half of the nearly 1.2 million marriages ending in divorce within a year. Is that realistic? Christianity Today quoted me on my vision in an editorial last year and wrote:

"If McManus's projections are at all reasonable and if we put our
minds to the task they are we could save approximately 600,000 marriages (a year) by 2010. If that vision doesn't motivate us, what will?"

A Final Thought

No state in America has reformed unilateral divorce. New Hampshire could be the first to do so. Divorce lawyers, who dominate the Judiciary Committees of most state legislatures, have prevented any national debate. Why not show the rest of the nation you have a plan to slash the divorce rate, raise the marriage rate and thus dramatically lower out of wedlock births? You could inspire the nation! Fortunately, immense funds are not needed to achieve these goals.

In New Hampshire, only two decisive steps are needed:

1. Pass HB 1301 to limit unilateral divorce to couples without minor children.

2. Use surplus TANF funds to fund public and private efforts to improve the communication and conflict resolution skills of New Hampshire residents.

Most of the work can be done by volunteers, lay couples. What's needed primarily is to inspire, recruit and train couples with strong, vibrant marriages, to be Mentor Couples, helping
other couples to be successful. It is a worthy cause, deserving of your support.

About the Author

Related Issues: Family and Marriage