Breaking Up: Hard(er) to Do? Tougher Divorce Laws Being Considered

Article excerpt

DIVORCE reformers across the country see it as riddle and reality: If it takes two to marry, why does it only take one to divorce?

At least 20 states have introduced bills to change that. The efforts, which mark the first significant attempt to alter divorce law in decades, are motivated by a growing concern about the fallout of divorce, particularly on children.

By making breaking up harder to do, supporters believe that couples will focus more on staying together. At their toughest, the reforms seek to repeal no-fault divorce, requiring proof of fault such as desertion, abuse and infidelity for contested cases in which children are involved. Other efforts aim to deter uncoupling by lengthening waiting periods and requiring couples to get counseling before untying the knot. And in a handful of places, there are attempts to prevent bad marriages, by having the engaged participate in classes as an incentive to getting a marriage license. Michigan lawmaker Jessie Dalman, a Republican who has been a leader in the movement, says: "The fundamental issue is, is marriage something we honor and respect? Is this person a life partner or a transitory thing? We're living in a blameless society. We don't want to take responsibility for our actions. We need to look squarely at what we've done. And that means making commitments and sticking with them." Critics, however, say that states can't mandate that two people stay in love - or even get along for the sake of the children. And they say that bringing back fault-based divorces, most of which were repealed in the 1970s, is destined to make a painful, often acrimonious, experience even worse. There are signs that society is paying greater attention to divorce. New studies suggest children of divorce face a higher risk of depression, poor health and delinquency. Magazine covers such as the New Republic ("Love, American Style: The Case Against the Case Against Divorce") and Esquire ("Divorce Is Good for You . . . No, It's Not") tackle the subject. And last month's conference in Washington, "Smart Marriages: Happy Families," brought together about 600 people - including feminists, fundamentalists and therapists - to analyze how to develop marriage skills. No state has yet repealed its divorce law. But smaller efforts - such as requiring a plan for raising children before a couple divorces - have passed in some states. In Maryland, the General Assembly recently gave judges the authority to require that divorcing couples attend a seminar on divorce's effects on children. Dalman's legislation, an ambitious package with 14 divorce-related bills, includes: Proposing that couples complete a premarital education program before receiving a $20 marriage license. Couples who do not must wait 60 days for the license. (Couples who complete the course have a three-day waiting period.) Having divorcing couples establish care plans for their children - including physical care, education and emotional stability. Requiring pre-divorce education where children are involved. While people have complained to Dalman that the government has no place requiring counseling, she says she believes otherwise. "All states are asked to fund more human service programs that deal with broken homes," she says. David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank on family issues in New York, says society must move from a divorce culture to a marriage culture. …