284. "Give Couples Tools to Make Marriages Last," USA Today (November 18, 1996), p. 25A.
The debate about the value of families is rapidly shifting, in this election year, from "should we save the family?" to "how can we save the family?"
One answer to this challenge comes from the states, that already have been credited with being our best national laboratories when it comes to welfare, health reforms, and numerous other social policies.
Michigan and Iowa are leading the way in trying to make divorce more difficult than it has been since the "no fault" approach was adopted. At least 11 other states also are considering anti-divorce measures.
Michigan is considering a return to "fault" divorce, where a contested divorce could be granted only if the other spouse can prove adultery, cruelty, or some other such cause. For contested and uncontested divorces, it would require family counseling when young children are involved and a waiting period. Iowa's legislation follows a similar line.
These state proposals are worth considering, but there are other measures that encourage family life that should be tried first. There is quite a menu to choose from:
Classes on family in schools. A task force, empaneled by The Communitarian Network which I founded, recommends that sex education in public schools should be replaced with classes on interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy. Youngsters in schools should be taught to communicate more effectively with one another and effective ways of dealing with conflicts. (Studies show that couples that stay together have about as many conflicts as those that break up, but they deal with their differences in a more constructive manner.) These are valuable skills that would serve young people well in their relations with their parents, friends, coworkers, and future spouses.
Premarital counseling. If marriage is to be re-valued, individuals need to be encouraged to enter it less lightly. The fact that marriage is so easy to undo is believed to have given it an aura of "disposability" where couples never become fully committed to it or truly try to make their union work.
Several churches and synagogues have refused to marry a couple unless they attend several premarital counseling sessions. There couples are asked if they have discussed and agreed on their basic issues such as who will take care of the children, who will control the budget, and what will be done if one of the two gets a job offer in another city. One wonders, given the merits of premarital counseling are not yet widely known, if it make sense to pass laws that would require it.
Measures to strengthen marriage. Retreats run by religious institutions and by lay psychotherapists are one option. There couples (rather than individuals, as is the rule in traditional therapy), learn how to deal with their problems. (One couple told a sociologist friend that they were deeply impressed by how much less serious their problems were than those of others they met during such "encounter" weekends.)
Another option is marriage counseling long before couples file for divorce. A key question though is the qualifications of the counselors. In 13 states, anyone can hang out a shingle and do counseling. Regulations in the other 37 states vary greatly. Another question is what is the best counseling approach.
Many counselors practice value-neutrality: they express no preference for making marriage work over divorce. In fact, they focus on individual psychological growth rather than growth as a couple. Providing more qualified and suitable counseling makes good sense before states pass laws that will require pre-divorce counseling.
Economic incentives/sanctions. Economic incentives and sanctions may be employed to help shore up families. For example, many favor eliminating the remnants of the tax penalties some couples experience when they marry. (This, however, is a tricky business, because some of the proposed changes would impose a considerable penalty on those who are single, hardly a fair move.)
One sanction is to collect child support due from deadbeat dads. The purpose is not merely to reduce the public cost of the children of the divorced ($23 billion a year in welfare spending alone) but also to discourage divorce. Perhaps many fewer men would initiate divorce if they knew that the full measure of the law would be applied to them to ensure that they pay child support.
Finally, most innovative and controversial option is the "children first" principle championed by Harvard Law professor and communitarian Mary Ann Glendon. Here assets in property settlements would be divided three ways rather than two.
The first--and lion's--share would be dedicated to ensuring the economic well-being of the children, and would be controlled by the custodial parent until the children reach the age of 18. Only the remaining assets be divided between the father and the mother. Because fathers often initiate divorces on the assumption that they will gain control of many of the assets while the mothers will assume custody of the children, the children-first principle would not only protect the children of divorced couples, but cool quite a few father's interest in divorce.
All this is not to suggest that one should reject out-of-hand state-imposed requirements such as mandatory premarital and pre-divorce counseling, extensive waiting periods (some states are considering five years!), and maybe even a return to "fault" divorce laws.
But there seems to be no obvious reason why one would not first seek to introduce the other measures or, if we must rely on the law, seek to reduce its burden by relying as much as possible on other means.
Still the various state legislative ideas have hidden merit: They have helped to move an intensive public dialogue on the question of "should marriage be saved?" to "how is it best done?" It is a dialogue that is coming not a moment too soon.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University, author of The Spirit of Community and founder and director of The Communitarian Network.