Attitudes About Covenant Marriage and Divorce: Policy Implications From a Three-State Comparison*
We report research on public opinions about covenant marriage and divorce to inform policy analysts of the social climate in which these legal initiatives are taking place. We collected data via telephone surveys from a sample of 1,324 adults in Louisiana, Arizona, and Minnesota. From these data, we draw four implications for policy: policy efforts designed to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce, such as covenant marriage, may be popular in states with people who generally have more conservative gender-role ideologies and who are religiously active; individuals who hold conservative gender-role ideologies and who are religiously active are more likely to choose covenant marriage for themselves; legislation dealing with specific components of covenant marriage is likely to be more popular in many states than legislation offering the full set of measures; and these legislative efforts generally will not be divisive along sociodemographic lines.
Key Words: divorce, family, marriage, policy.
We report research on attitudes about covenant marriage laws in an effort to inform policy analysts of the social climate in which such legal initiatives are taking place. Covenant marriage now exists in three states: Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It allows couples the option of selecting a different set of legal requirements to govern their marriages from those found in standard, unilateral-divorce marriages (Nock, Wright, & Sanchez, 1999; Spaht, 1998). Covenant marriage requires the following: (a) some marriage preparation, (b) full disclosure of all information that could reasonably affect the decision to marry, (c) an oath of lifelong commitment to marriage, (d) acceptance of limited grounds for divorce (e.g., abuse, adultery, addiction, felony imprisonment, separation for 2 years), and perhaps most important (e) marital counseling if problems threaten the marriage. Already-married couples may convert their standard marriages to covenant marriages.
Covenant marriage is the only significant change to marriage and divorce laws enacted in the United States to date and testifies to the concerns many Americans have about the high divorce rate. Yet marriage continues to be a popular institution. In a 1996 survey, only 1% of Americans said marital success was not very important to them, and only 8% said that marriage is an outdated institution (Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 1998). Demographers estimate that 85 to 90% of young adults today will eventually marry, only a slight decrease (about 4%) from historical trends (Cherlin, 1992; Haines, 1996).
Given the new demands made on contemporary marriages, individuals' experiences with their parents' divorce, and the socially acceptable alternatives to marriage, this is a striking figure. Despite rising expectations that marriage satisfy increasing personal needs (Fowers, 2000), most married persons today (64%) report they are very happy in their marriages, a decline of only 3% from 25 years ago (National Marriage Project, 2000). Even among "fragile families" (i.e., unmarried young parents living in poverty at the time of their child's birth), the hopes for eventual marriage to their partner are evident (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Well-Being, 2000). Similarly, leading voices concerned with fatherlessness in the African American community call for a revival of historically higher marriage rates as an important element for promoting responsible fatherhood (Morehouse Conference on African American Fathers, 1999). An optimistic spirit remains among current youths who have been on the receiving end of the highest rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing of any generation. Eighty percent of high school girls say that having a good marriage is extremely important to them (National Marriage Project, 1999); 64% of girls and 57% of boys who expect to marry say it is very likely that they will stay married to the same person for life (National Marriage Project, 2000). …