When you’ve been focusing on divorce as long as I have, you hear a lot – I mean a LOT – about how divorce has become too easy. “People don’t take marriage seriously any more; the first time they have an argument, somebody runs out and gets a divorce.”
The latest salvo comes from the son of a Baptist preacher turned Texas legislator who has introduced legislation to do away with no-fault divorce. He’s part of a decades-long pattern of religiously-minded men who want to impose their faith practices on public policy.
What we’re actually seeing undermines the easy assumption that divorce is too easy. What the statistics tell us is that today’s young adults, intimate as many of them are with the trauma of divorce, are so afraid of it they are reluctant to marry. The divorce rate is down, and so is the marriage rate. Today’s young adults are almost as likely as their counterparts from a generation ago to fall in love with someone of the opposite sex, and they’re almost as likely to share a household with them. What they’re less likely to do is marry them.
For years, most divorce attorneys, when challenged about how easy it is to divorce, have pointed out how easy it is to marry and have suggested that perhaps we should make marriage more difficult. Now that argument becomes less appealing. Most of us would say that when two people love each other, and particularly when they want to make a family together, it’s better for them to marry than to just shack up. We know that family law gives a measure of protection to a spouse who compromises his or her career for the sake of the family, and we know those protections seldom or never come into being in the absence of marriage. Given a new reluctance by loving couples to marry, do we still want to make it harder for them to marry?
What I can say from my little vantage point of watching people divorce over the decades is this: divorce is NOT too easy. Broken marriages are almost always accompanied by deep, searing pain, pain that spreads like an infection through both spouses to children, parents, siblings, neighbors, and co-workers. Sometimes that pain drives people to act violently. Measures to increase the waiting period for divorce or to drive up the cost of divorce or to force them to prove their spouse’s misconduct may in fact reduce the incidence of divorce, but they won’t do a thing to address the broken marriages. They will simply lead to more people remaining in broken marriages and sharing their misery more widely.
If that Texas legislator wants to use his power to improve the lives of his constituents, I have a suggestion for him: build a culture that encourages and supports marriage.
- Make it easier and more affordable for couples who fall in love to learn how marriage would work.
- Make it easier and more affordable for couples about to marry to engage in premarital counseling.
- Make it easier and more affordable for spouses and their children to get counseling and community support so they can maintain a happy family.
- Honor and celebrate couples living quietly in long-term, happy marriages as the community heroes they should be.
- And if spouses must part company and divorce, make it easier and more affordable for them to do that too.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Texans could lead the way and show the rest of us how a state can support and encourage marriage? Don’t think it’s likely? Neither do I, but that shouldn’t stop us from dreaming, should it?