Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America

Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America

Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America

Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America


Regardless how you interpret the statistics, the divorce rate in the United States is staggering. But, what if the government could change this? Would families be better off if new public policies made it more difficult for couples to separate?

This book explores a movement that emerged over the past fifteen years, which aims to do just that. Guided by certain politicians and religious leaders who herald marriage as a solution to a range of longstanding social problems, a handful of state governments enacted "covenant marriage" laws, which require couples to choose between a conventional and a covenant marriage. While the familiar type of union requires little effort to enter and can be terminated by either party unilaterally, covenant marriage requires premarital counseling, an agreement bound by fault-based rules or lengthy waiting periods to exit, and a legal stipulation that divorce can be granted only after the couple has received counseling.

Drawing on interviews with over 700 couples-half of whom have chosen covenant unions-this book not only evaluates the viability of public policy in the intimate affairs of marriage, it also explores how growing public discourse is causing men and women to rethink the meaning of marriage.


Earlier in this century, divorce was rare and carried a burdensome stigma. For children, divorce brought the shame of a “broken home,” and for adults, the suspicion of infidelity and moral failure. Back then, marriage for most was for better or for worse, “until death do us part.”

By the 1980s and 1990s, this social landscape had changed. Divorce had become commonplace; in fact, it was so routine that more marriages were ending in divorce than in death or widowhood (Bongaarts and Watkins 1996). The relatively new idea of equality between men and women was increasingly reflected in everyday routines. Unmarried childbearing, once disgraceful, spread to the wider culture, crossing race and class lines. Traditional marriage had been seemingly rejected, moving from a core institution of society to yet one more lifestyle choice among a growing array of alternative family arrangements. Some argued that marriage itself, once the basis of the family and therefore of social life as a whole, had become little more than “a piece of paper” for many Americans.

As concern over the social costs of divorce and the deinstitutionalization of marriage increased, so too did the backlash against new family norms. This was seen at all levels: private, state, and federal. Efforts to strengthen or promote marriage were advanced beginning in the mid-1990s as part of an emerging “marriage movement” that we discuss later in this chapter. The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) attracted widespread attention by defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Since then, a wide range of legislative, judicial, and ballot initiatives have focused on gay marriage. All signify the resistance to changing the traditional definition of marriage.

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