Reforming divorce: Changing laws to preserve families

States consider divorce reform in attempt to preserve families

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

This photo taken Aug. 12, 2009 shows former husband and wife Mark Sims and Nicole Collier posing for a photograph in Glendale, Calif. Mark and Nicole attended the Parenting Without Conflict class ordered by a Los Angeles Court in relation of a custody battle of their only child. (AP Photo/Hector Mata)

Associated Press

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of two articles.

Beverly Willett never wanted a divorce.

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."

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 certainly 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.

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