Major Obstacles to Reforming Divorce (updated July 22,2008)
A Marriage Commission’s Perspective
In the fall of 2007 fall Mike McManus, President of Marriage Savers, served on The Marriage Commission of Virginia organized by The Family Foundation, an affiliate of Focus on the Family. The Commission included representatives of the office of the Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General (who represent different parties), noted national marriage leaders such as Maggie Gallagher, co-author of The Case for Marriage, Family Law Attorney John Crouch of Americans for Divorce Reform, key Virginia academics Brad Wilcox and Steven Nock of the University of Virginia, Bob Ruthazer of First Things First, Richmond, a Community Marriage Policy Mike and Harriet McManus helped to create, plus leading attorneys and therapists. During four meetings last fall, the group agreed to support replacing No Fault Divorce with Mutual Consent. (Shared Parenting was not agreed to.) Almost no legislator was willing to introduce the legislation When a bill was proposed, it never got out of committee. Why?
Ignorance & Fear
First, there is great ignorance about the cost of divorce, and second, a fear of addressing the issue. “Legislators do not understand the issue. It was difficult to find anyone to patron the bill,” says Chris Freund, V.P. of the Family Foundation. “They do not know the cost of divorce in tax dollars. The new study by the Institute for American Values will be immensely helpful in providing the precise data on billions of taxpayer dollars” on the cost of marital breakup and of non-marriage.”
He adds, “The bigger problem is fear, which supersedes ignorance. They are afraid of a backlash if they have anything to do with divorce, that it will cause repercussions. There also is an assumption that abuse is always included in divorce,” which will bring out feminist opponents. Even though the bill as drafted, clearly excludes fault grounds, such as adultery or abuse, fear clouds thought or reasoned analysis. Why? Freund blames
America’s “libertarian spirit of live and let live. Also, so many of them have divorced, or know people who are divorced, and its damage does not seem that great.”
If one has contributed to the demise of a marriage, there is a tendency to minimize the perceived costs to one’s spouse, and especially to one’s children. “Children are resilient,” they rationalize. Really? Why then has there been a 12-fold increase in the number of cohabiting couples, soaring from 430,000 in 1960 to 5.4 million couples in 2006? As Mike and Harriet McManus report in their new book, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, cohabiting couples are mostly children of divorce who fear marriage because they fear divorce, having seen how traumatic it was for their parents. A second large cohort of cohabiting couples are adult children of non-marriage. Neither group of young adults have seen a healthy marriage up close. They know what a mother is, but often not what a father is – let alone what a husband or wife looks like. The adults who caused this pain by divorcing their spouse, or never marrying the mother of their children – are oblivious of the impact of their selfish decisions, on the next generation.
Attorneys Control Key Committees
Virginia 100% of the Legislators on key committees are attorneys, most of whom have no interest in Divorce Reform. If they are not divorce attorneys (members of the “Family Bar”), their sympathies are with their colleagues, not with those who want to make divorce harder to obtain. Victoria Cobb, Executive Director of The Family Foundation, had introduced similar legislation last year, and thought a Marriage Commission might give added weight to the cause. She had also led a successful battle to limit marriage to a man marrying a woman. Critics of that initiative invariably said, “Gay marriage is less of a threat to marriage than divorce. Why don’t you do something about that?” However, two years of initiative were fruitless.
The Divorced Blame Their Ex-Spouse, Not the System
Four out of five people who were divorced against their will naturally blame their ex-spouse for the divorce – not the law, No Fault Divorce, which makes it possible for a wife to divorce her husband unilaerally, even if he wants to work out their differences. Few people alive today remember when no one could get a divorce unless their spouse agreed to it. The first No Fault law was signed by California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1969, and other states largely adopted No Fault by 1975. The idea that the law could change to stop a spouse from getting the divorce, if the couple has children is virtually unknown today.. The system actually rewards the person with the least interest in the marriage – and penalizes the person who is trying to save it for themselves and their children. This is a perverse incentive which is destructive of the institution of marriage. No wonder the percentage of American adults who are married has plunged from two-thirds in the 1960s - to less than 50% today.
Lack of Any Outrage
For these reasons, it must be confessed that there has been no expressed outrage over
America’s high divorce rate, which is double that of
Germany, resulting in one divorce for every two marriages. One consequence has been a ten-fold increase in the number of children living with cohabiting couples. (There were only 196,000 children under 18 living with unmarried parents in 1970 but 1,954,000 in 2005.) There are probably 30 to 40 million adult children of divorce who have borne their pain privately, and coped with it by living with someone of the opposite gender, not realizing that cohabiting actually leads to relationship failure. One of the most prevalent myths widely believed by couples who are living together is that “We are in a trial marriage.” As the McManuses write, “They are actually in a trial divorce. The only question is whether they will break up short of the marriage (as happens in 45% of the cases), or whether they will marry and divorce, since the divorce rate is 50% higher for those who lived together before the wedding. About 85% will break apart.” Thus, the pain of their parents failed marriage or non-marriage becomes a personal experience repeated with greater trauma in their own inability to build a lasting marriage. Due to this personal pain, and the lack of any visible answers – there is no sense of outrage by people who have every reason to be outraged. Nor are any answers visible to either the Baby Boom Generation or to their kids, the Baby Busters sometimes called Generation X.
 Mike & Harriet McManus, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, 2008, Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, New York, London, Toronto, Sidney.
The World Almanac 2008, “
U.S. Population, by Age, Sex and Households,” 2005,
U.S. Census Bureau.
 In 1970 there were 196,000 unmarried households with children under age 18 – but 1,954,000 in 2005, according to “Marital Status and Living Arrangements, “ U.S. Census, 2005.
The World Almanac 2008, “Nonmarital Childbearing in the U.S. 1970-2004, National Center for Health Statistics, which also provided 2006 data in a phone interview.