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Divorce as a Last Resort

For a 15-year-old girl in England, there is no equivocating on the subject of marriage.

"Parents should stay together even if they don't love each other," says Amy Harris, whose parents divorced when she was 5. Writing eloquently in The Times of London last summer, she added, "Parents can't say that divorce does not affect the children. It does, and everyone knows that. It hurts."

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Her straight-from-the-heart plea for enduring marriages reflects an ideal that is not always possible for couples to achieve. Yet in speaking for a youthful constituency whose voices are not often heard, she echoes the attitudes of a growing number of adults on both sides of the Atlantic who are spurring grass-roots efforts, both social and political, to strengthen marriage.

After years of public hand-wringing and helplessness over rising divorce rates, a new spirit of hopefulness prevails among religious leaders, marriage counselors, educators, and policymakers - an optimistic insistence that progress is possible.

Michael McManus, founder of a church-based movement called Marriage Savers, wants the divorce rate in the United States to be cut in half by 2010. To that end, he trains older couples to mentor other couples in their congregations, helping to shore up troubled marriages and improve good ones. Similarly, in Amy's Britain, the Church of England is urging churches to offer couples better preparation for marriage.

Other efforts are secular. Marriage professionals make a persuasive case for more premarital counseling. Helping engaged couples to identify potential areas of conflict, they say, leads some to decide not to marry. Those who do wed benefit from courses that teach them how to communicate effectively, argue constructively, and appreciate the qualities that drew them together initially.

Such programs do more than prevent divorce. They also build confidence in marriage. Experts point out that without such confidence, cohabitation, with its socially hazardous tendencies - lack of commitment, higher rates of breakup and violence, children born out of wedlock - will continue to rise.

Still other efforts center around divorce laws. One of the most widely publicized legal reforms involves what is called covenant marriage laws. In Louisiana and Arizona, engaged couples who choose covenant vows must undergo preliminary counseling and agree to "marry for life."

Unlike no-fault divorce laws in effect in all 50 states, which allow either spouse to divorce unilaterally, covenant laws permit divorce only when one spouse has "breached" the covenant through adultery, violence, abandonment, or criminal conviction. So far only about 3 percent of couples have chosen covenant vows.

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Simply making divorce harder will not make individual marriages stronger. Covenants that require proof of fault could trap one partner in a difficult union or increase the cost of divorce. Yet despite controversy, such laws may have the beneficial effect of encouraging a revaluing of marriage in the broader culture.

In another heartening sign of the growing strength of the marriage movement, next June an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 marriage professionals will gather in Denver for the fourth Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference. The event, founded by Diane Sollee, last year drew participants from 30 countries - a recognition that family breakdown is a worldwide concern.

After several decades of a divorce revolution, any marriage revolution will have to move beyond individual changes in attitude and behavior to encompass broader cultural shifts as well. Hollywood's glorification of the single life, and single motherhood in particular, perpetuates a public wariness of lifelong commitment.

One media critic also suggests that advertising, which markets a disposable culture, subtly undermines the permanence of marriage by creating dissatisfaction not only with products but with relationships. Frustrated with your marriage? Toss it out for a new one.

As the marriage movement gains momentum, well-meaning supporters will need to guard against judging couples for whom divorce remains the best or only solution. These couples deserve compassion, not condemnation. No one outside a marriage ever truly knows what goes on within it.

Still, by helping more couples to find constancy in the midst of tribulation - encouraging them to ride out the rough patches and seek reconciliation and forgiveness - the marriage movement serves not only the best interests of children but the needs of those in every generation who, like teenager Amy Harris, yearn for wholeness and harmony at home.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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