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Reforming divorce: Changing laws to preserve families

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 Even when her husband packed his bags and stomped out of the house, vowing to marry the woman he was having an affair with, she stood her ground.

For five years, she clung to the vows they had made nearly 20 years and two daughters before in the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in downtown Manhattan as her grandfather officiated.

Willett had hope because she lived in New York, which in 2003 didn't offer no-fault divorce — the last state to require that an individual prove abandonment, cruelty or adultery.

Willett had done none of those things, so her husband's suit for divorce was baseless. He later moved to New Jersey to file under no-fault divorce laws there.  Hounded weekly by lawyers, dangerously thin from stress and ultimately, deeply in debt, Willett finally gave in. By then they had been married for more than 25 years. "I learned that the legal system didn't really care," she told the Deseret News. "There was this whole system that had grown to effectuate family disintegration, not to try and hold families together. I was completely blown away by that."

 b2ap3_thumbnail_926015.jpg Hounded weekly by lawyers, dangerously thin from stress and ultimately, deeply in debt, Willett finally gave in. By then they had been married for more than 25 years. "I learned that the legal system didn't really care," she told the Deseret News. "There was this whole system that had grown to effectuate family disintegration, not to try and hold families together. I was completely blown away by that."

b2ap3_thumbnail_926016.jpg The system began in 1969 when California passed the first unilateral divorce law that said one person could leave a marriage without the spouse's consent and without a specific violation. Within 15 years, similar laws had been passed nationwide.

Initially hailed as a progressive step toward greater individual rights and increased freedom for women, many scholars and marriage advocates now argue that unilateral no-fault divorce has made ending marriages too easy and too one-sided, with children most affected.

These advocates now hope to lower divorce rates through laws that slow the process — with some exceptions — and encourage couples who are waiting to use opportunities to improve communication and relational skills and hopefully reconsider.

Divorce-reform advocates are battling a cultural bias created by 40 years of legal precedent, concerns about increasing governmental involvement in private lives and the cost of seeking help. But they say this needs to be discussed to avoid more unnecessary pain.

"The divorce rate in this country is far too high," says David Bakke, a divorced dad from Georgia. "Many people jump into marriage hastily, realize they've made a mistake and look to divorce as an easy way out. The concept of marriage should be taken far more seriously — and anyone who has been through a divorce would likely agree. Whether or not kids are involved, divorce stinks. The toll it takes on you professionally and emotionally can destroy you if you allow it to. I seriously doubt people fully grasp this fact before getting married. I cerently did not."

The Effect of divorce

When Pastor Jeff Meyers counsels troubled couples in his office at Christ Lutheran Church in Overland Park, Kan., he asks, "Do you want to be happier, more secure within a year, or even five years, or do you want to be miserable and regretful and destroy your kids' lives?"

The couple looks startled and responds, "Of course we want to be happy, secure and have a strong family."

"Then stay together," Meyers says. "Find a way. Marriage is not an illness; it's not something you need to be cured from."

A Lutheran minister with clinical counseling credentials, Meyers has devoted his life to countering the high U.S. divorce rate. In 1960, the U.S. Census said 1.8 percent of men and 2.6 percent of women were divorced. By 2011, it had jumped to 9 percent of men and 11 percent of women.

The divorce rate has slowed, but only because more young couples live together without marrying. In 1980, more than 1.5 million young adults cohabited; by 2010 it was 7.5 million.

"There's hardly any social problem that the government is involved in and spending a lot of money on that isn't heavily affected by marriages not forming and marriages breaking up," says Bill Doherty, professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota.

A 2008 study on the costs of divorce and unwed childbearing estimated that family fragmentation costs taxpayers $112 billion annually for things like food stamps, housing assistance, child welfare services and the justice system.

In a 2005 article in "The Future of Children," University of Pennsylvania sociologist Paul Amato explained that if children were to grow up in stable two-parent families at the same level as 1960 before the massive increase in divorce, it would mean 1.2 million fewer children suspended from school, 538,000 fewer acts of delinquency and 71,400 fewer suicide attempts.

Willett's kids aren't skipping school or tagging cars, but they're still struggling, and Willett is determined to help others avoid the same pain. She's a co-chair with the Coalition for Divorce Reform, along with Chris Gersten, a former official with the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Their non-partisan, volunteer-run organization wants to reduce unnecessary divorce and promote healthy marriages by changing divorce laws and increasing awareness about the impacts of splitting families.

"(We think) if we're not happy and self-fulfilled in every way, our marriages are a failure … and it's not going to get any better," Willett said. "Those are huge misconceptions. Most people don't even know about marriage education … how couples can come back together and those marriages can grow and be stronger. We've just lost our understanding of hard work and patience and how it pays off."

Slow it down

It began with snide comments then grew to heated arguments. But the worst was strained silence during dinner as Jennifer Graham and her then-husband talked with their four children but avoided looking at each other.

The bump in their 18-year marriage had quickly become a mountain, and after two years of fighting, several less-than-effective marriage counselors and a year of him sleeping on the couch, Jennifer willingly signed divorce papers to stop the pain.

"It took me about four months after he moved out to where things were quiet enough inside of me that I could start to heal from the difficult period we had been through," said the Boston mom. "At that point, I saw very clearly what the impact would be on our kids, and it was ugly."

When Jennifer reached out a month before the divorce was to be final, asking that they try one more time, it was just too late.

It's been almost two-and-a-half years, and Jennifer and her children are still struggling.

"He's remarried, and I'm still not over it," she said. "Looking back, there are so many things I wish we had done differently. We just didn't try enough. I wish the state, which claims to be on the side of marriage, had done more in terms of making us wait it out."

Requiring that parents wait eight months to a year before a divorce would be final (except in cases of abuse) is the first element of divorce reform proposals.

"Anything that's done quickly is generally not well thought out," said Ken Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "When people got married they committed for life; I don't think waiting a year is a hardship."

In Maine, where Altshuler practices, the waiting period for a divorce is 60 days. Including the District of Columbia, 10 states have zero waiting periods, 29 states are less than six months, seven states are six months and five states have a waiting period of one year or longer, according to data gathered by John Crouch, former director of Americans for Divorce Reform and now a board member of the CDR.

Crouch also found that nine of the 10 states with the highest divorce rates required no waiting. Of the ten states with the lowest divorce rates, five required waiting.

Along with waiting, these proposals also would require divorce education, most often provided through courts — what to expect, the effects on children, the value of mediation and the reconciliation potential.

Reconciliation is a crucial yet underdiscussed topic, says Doherty, whose research shows 30 percent of divorcing individuals still express interest in patching things up. "There is this myth that anyone who files for divorce has had two decades of misery and that divorce is a necessary amputation … in order to save the patient," he said. "The research (shows) that's not the majority of cases."

Dealing with concerns

Colorado Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Larimer County, never finished drafting his bill last winter to increase the waiting period for divorcing parents because both sides responded with a "firestorm."

"There's no question that minimizing damage to children is a good idea," said the Republican lawmaker. "But the means to get there … presented a great deal of difficulty. When I can't even get a consensus among those that I most closely work with, I can see some red flags."

The concerns about Lundberg's almost-bill — modeled after the Coalition for Divorce Reform's Parental Divorce Reduction Act — were that it would mean too much government involvement (he insisted it would be minimal) and that it would keep couples embroiled in the court system longer (he would keep them out of court while they waited, he says).

"It brought up a lot of deep, fundamental questions," Lundberg said. "What sort of requirements do we, the state, impose upon you, the individual, when you and your family are going through a divorce? Those are tough questions that we don't have answers to."

Utah Rep. Jim Nielson (R-Bountiful) proposed a multi-faceted divorce-reform bill in Utah's most recent session to extend the waiting period to 90 days for everyone (a previous error exempted parents who took a divorce education class) and require that a divorce education class be taken within 30 days of filing "when there's some potential it could impact people's choices," he said.

Nielson's bill died in committee, but a colleague's bill passed and cemented the waiting period at 90 days.

Indiana legislators proposed a version of the PDRA, hoping to boost their wait from 60 days to 10 months, with exceptions for domestic violence, addiction and sex offenses.

The bill stalled in committee yet its advocates are hopeful for next year. "We want to, through policy, encourage people to stay together and do the hard thing, do the work," said Sue Swayze, program coordinator with the Indiana Family Institute.

But what if that work puts women and children in danger? asks Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Is (this exemption) going to require a police report, eye witnesses?" she said. "The more obstacles you put in place for women who are seeking safety ... the more likely that they're not going to be successful. Right now, it feels to me like divorce laws are working fairly well."

This sentiment makes divorce legislation a tough sell at the moment, advocates say. "The problem is, the natural allies of this legislation are social conservatives and they're not focused on divorce reform, in part because they don't think the climate is right for passing this legislation," said the CDR's Gersten. "They know divorce is a disaster, Hollywood's impact on the culture is terrible and there's no question where they stand on family formation. But they have other priorities that keep them from putting energy into divorce reform."

Focus on the Family is concerned about divorce, yet leaves legislative efforts up to states. They are "very open to what can be done," says Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of Issue Analysis for CitizenLink, the group's policy arm, but this election year may not be the time to do it. "(In our) political climate ... heat generally goes to unresolved issues. Divorce is seen as a resolved issue in public policy. (Advocates) have got to be able to make the case why it's not."

For Jennifer Graham, the issue will never be fully resolved, as she's now a single mom with four kids trying to keep the bills paid while juggling new family dynamics she never wanted.

"There was a point he wanted to save the marriage, too," she says sadly. "It wasn't a thing where he said, 'Sorry, I've fallen in love with someone. I want a divorce.' We were fighting and we got tired of fighting and we quit too soon. I wish I'd hung on … and I know my kids sure do."

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