A Second Chance for Divorcing Couples
by David Gibson
Divorces could be prevented much more often than society tends to believe possible. Moreover, not only do troubled couples benefit from steps they take to reconcile, but so do their minor children and society itself, according to a report released Oct. 21 in Washington during an event hosted by two nationally known public-policy research centers, the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.
Titled “Second Chances: A Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce,” the report’s co-authors are William J. Doherty and Leah Ward Sears, two leading U.S. commentators on marriage and the family. Doherty, who writes and speaks frequently on marriage and children, is a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Sears, a retired chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, speaks often on restoring a culture of marriage in America.
Their report explores two popular, but “mistaken” assumptions about couples considering divorce. The first assumption is that most divorces occur only after a lengthy process of high conflict and misery for a couple.
But in what may be their report’s most astonishing observation, Doherty and Sears point to research over the past decade showing “that the majority of divorces (from 50 percent to 66 percent, depending on the study) occur in couples who had average happiness and low levels of conflict in the years prior to the divorce.” (Another group, 33 percent to 50 percent of divorcing couples, showed “a pattern of high conflict, alienation and sometimes abuse.”)
No wonder the authors believe many couples moving along the road to divorce would be able, with assistance, to reverse course.
A second mistaken assumption is that once couples file for divorce they will not entertain the possibility of reconciling. But here the report points to new research indicating that some 40 percent of couples “already well into the divorce process say that one or both of them are interested in the possibility of reconciliation.”
The report speculates that “the proportion of couples open to reconciliation might be even higher at the outset of the divorce process – before the process itself has caused additional strife.”
In light of evidence contradicting these two popular assumptions, the authors offer the following, thought-provoking summation:
“An intriguing and growing body of research is suggesting that most couples who divorce have problems that are not much different from those who stay married, that unhappy marriages can experience turnarounds and that even well into the process a significant minority of those divorcing are interested in exploring the option of reconciliation.”
Children and Divorce
The Doherty-Sears report does not advocate “keeping destructive marriages together” and expresses concern about children living with “chronic high levels of conflict and hostility between their parents” or abuse.
However, the authors distinguish those children from children “in the average marriages that break up.” The authors comment that “more than half of U.S. divorces today appear to take place in low-conflict homes in which the best outcome for children would probably be a continuation of the marriage.”
Children in the average marriages that break up “do not understand why their parents broke up. They may blame themselves. And they are propelled from a relatively stable family life into a post-divorce world that offers little relief and brings many challenges,” Doherty and Sears state.
Research shows, they add, “that divorced fathers and mothers are less likely to have high-quality relationships with their children.” And children “with divorced or unmarried parents are more likely to be poor,” and to experience a range of disappointing educational and social outcomes.
One reason society should take seriously the possibility of saving marriages is that the social and economic consequences of divorce cost taxpayers “billions of dollars per year,” according to the report. It says, “A modest reduction in divorce would produce significant” taxpayer savings.
So it is “wise … to help distressed couples when possible to avoid divorce,” the report says.
State Legislative Proposals
The report recommends that states “adopt a waiting period of at least one year from the date of filing for divorce before the divorce becomes final.” In cases involving domestic violence, for example, the requirement could be waived.
In ten U.S. states, no waiting period now is required before a divorce, and 29 states have waiting periods of fewer than six months, the report notes.
Doherty and Sears believe the value of a waiting period becomes clear when it is realized that “people making a decision to divorce are often at one of the most intense emotional periods of their lives.” Moreover, the authors fear that “the law moves couples more rapidly toward divorce than perhaps they had intended.”
But the possibility for couples to “learn new skills and connect with resources in their community to improve their marriages” greatly interests Doherty and Sears too, as does the need for divorcing parents to be educated for their roles.
In fact, the authors urge states to require “a four-hour parent education course before either spouse files for divorce,” a class to be completed either in a classroom or online.
The report’s title, “Second Chances,” also serves as the name for legislation the report urges states to adopt. The proposed legislation would establish a divorce waiting period of at least a year. Completion of the class for parents of minor children is another of the legislation’s requirements.
Such a class represents a “win-win situation” for couples, Doherty and Sears assert. One “win” comes with offering “information and encouragement on marital reconciliation.”
Another win comes from the time the class devotes to “communication and conflict management skills related to co-parenting.” Thus, couples who decide against reconciling are prepared to approach divorce in a less adversarial manner.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.