Editor’s Note: This article was submitted to The Stamford Advocate, but was never published. It was written after the state legislature of Louisiana, a bastion of jurisprudence, enacted a law allowing couples to choose a marriage contract that makes it harder to get a divorce. This legislation is the response of the Religious Right to the proliferation of broken homes, which many of them blame on no-fault divorce. (The reference to Alex Kelly might be unfamiliar to readers outside Connecticut (more specifically, Fairfield County) — he’s a convicted rapist who jumped bail and skipped out on his trial by vacationing in Europe for nearly a decade before finally turning himself in. He's currently in prison and is likely to stay there for a good long time.)
Where did legislators get the idea they could stem the tide of broken homes by making it harder to get a divorce? This is the thrust of Louisiana’s recently enacted Covenant Marriage Act, another harebrained attempt to make people feel good without actually accomplishing anything.
Social conservatives, who are pushing this legislation in several other states as well, tout it as a return to the good old days before no-fault divorce contributed to a decline in America’s family values. The same Republicans who want the government out of our lives are now hoping to use the legal system to force unhappy families to stay together.
One argument in favor of this bill is that it allows for choice, since no one is compelled to select the covenant marriage, rather than the no-fault option. But imagine explaining to your future spouse that you’d prefer the more-disposable form of matrimony. Outside Hollywood, most couples enter into marriage believing it’s going to succeed (the statistics notwithstanding). The noncovenant option would be about as easy a choice to suggest to a prospective spouse as a prenuptial agreement or an adultery waiver.
Realistically, what percentage of couples have a pre-nup? Other than wealthy, philandering New York City real estate developers with major comb-overs, how many people have the nerve to broach this subject at all during the engagement? Picture yourself saying to your betrothed, “Let’s take the no-fault route — it’ll be easier to get a divorce, if things don’t work out.” You and your affianced could end up exchanging gunfire instead of rings, and you may never get the chance to hear your wedding band play “The Alley Cat.”
On the other hand, the premarital counseling requirements of the covenant marriage do make some sense. Although no hard data exist that Catholic couples who attend pre-Cana sessions have happier marriages than those who don’t, one study does purport to show that 20% of those who go through some form of premarital counseling opt out of the wedding. Anything that keeps incompatible couples from marrying and bringing more children into unhappy families is a step in the right direction.
Of course, no one is as disinclined toward rational decision-making as an engaged couple, blinded by hormones, romance and the excitement of the upcoming wedding day. The proof of this should be obvious to anyone who’s seen the caps and gowns brides pick out for their bridesmaids or the pastel tuxedos their ushers are forced to wear. But even if counseling does no good, it’s not likely to do any harm, which is more than can be said for the rest of this legislation.
Do proponents really believe that couples take their marriages so lightly that they’re leaving them simply because it’s easy to do so? Nearly all divorces are traumatic and depressing, and yet, no matter how horrible divorces might be, the participants desperately pursue them anyway. In most cases, one or both spouses want out so badly they’d remove their own tonsils with a grapefruit spoon, rather than spend more time in the marriage. So a few extra legal impediments are unlikely to stand in their way. Rather than making divorces rarer, this law will just make them more unpleasant and drawn-out.
And does anyone think that forcing alienated partners to stay together will create a good environment for children? A mandated re-evaluation period for a crumbling marriage is likely to make parents more disgruntled and traumatize the children even more than a “traditional” no-fault divorce. A broken home that’s artificially kept together may look good statistically, but what about the reality of it for those forced to live in it?
So, the question that comes to mind is this: “Why would people deliberately want to make things more difficult on themselves?” The answer seems to be our all-American desire to feel like we’re doing something about a problem, even if that “something” is pointless.
An obvious example of this tendency is the way Congress wastes its time debating flag-burning amendments to the Constitution. Although they afford right-wingers and patriot wannabes an opportunity to trash the free-speech principles of the First Amendment, they’re an attempt to solve a problem that barely exists. These days, protesters burn the flag about as often as they burn their draft cards.
Another exercise in pointlessness is the annual debate on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which enables Congressional art critics to fan the flames of decency against what is, in truth, a microscopic percentage of the Federal budget. Our nation’s moral guardians seem to think they can vanquish Satan by denying funding to his legions of perverted painters and poets. If the NEA didn’t already exist, Senator Jesse Helms would be forced to invent it, so he’d be able to denounce it.
And then there’s the endless controversy over prayer in the schools. Are we now so afraid of our young people that we hope to protect ourselves from them by forcing the Lord’s prayer down their throats each morning? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the number of children who lack the basic skills required to read the Lord’s prayer or even Dr. Seuss for that matter?
And finally, we come to the most-expensive attempt to assuage our national feelings of helplessness: drug enforcement. The U.S. spends more money than any nation on earth — billions upon billions of dollars each year — on laws and agencies that work to promote the comforting illusion that drugs are illegal.
I’m an overweight, middle-aged suburbanite, with high-blood pressure and cholesterol, and a defective heart valve. I would no more snort cocaine than I would go on an all-bacon diet. Yet, if, for some reason, it became necessary to have a gram of coke on my kitchen table within 24 hours, I could have it there just by making a few calls to the right people. This also means that my mother has access to the drug as well, since she knows me.
Now, if my old, white-haired mother, a devout Republican somewhere in her 70s, with absolutely no interest in obtaining cocaine, can easily acquire such a substance, imagine how much easier it must be for a 16-year-old high school junior to score at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. Can we honestly say that our laws are preventing our children, or anyone else for that matter, from buying drugs?
Although there is certainly de jure illegality, it is surely not de facto. Most of us baby boomers can remember how plentiful drugs were in college, but very few of us ever heard anyone utter the sentence, Keep that joint away from me ... it’s illegal.
If practically anyone can procure drugs, what are we buying with all the effort expended on drug enforcement? We’re purchasing the comforting notion that we’re doing the right thing and sending the right message — i.e., we’re making ourselves feel good. The fact that these policies suck up our tax dollars, while making drug dealers rich, doesn’t seem to diminish the satisfaction we derive from the knowledge that the U.S. of A. supports the largest antidrug bureaucracy in the world ... but I digress.
Covenant marriages will appeal to those who want to make a statement they can feel good about. And more complicated and contentious breakups will certainly be a boon for the divorce lawyers, a group that needs extra work about as much as Alex Kelly’s legal team needs more billable hours in court. However, the children compelled to grow up in homes with parents who can’t stand each other, but are forced to live together, may not be quite so grateful to their legislators for their childhoods. Nor will those unhappy cohabitants who felt pressured into choosing a covenant marriage.
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