Conventional wisdom holds that about half of U.S. marriages end in divorce — and that most Americans wish the divorce rate were lower. Still, many are skeptical about whether we can lower the divorce rate without trapping more people in bad marriages.
This skepticism is fueled by two common assumptions: Divorce happens only after a long process of misery and conflict; and, once couples file for divorce, they don’t entertain the idea of reconciling.
We now know those assumptions are wrong.
Research over the past decade has shown that a major share of divorces (50 to 66 percent, depending on the study) occur between couples who had average happiness and low levels of conflict in the years before the divorce.
Contrary to popular belief, only a minority of divorcing couples experience high conflict and abuse during their marriages. Most divorces occur with couples who have drifted apart and handle everyday disagreements poorly. It is these “average” divorces that research shows are the most harmful to children.
In their study documenting the difference between high conflict and average divorces, sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth offer this promising conclusion: “Our results suggest that divorces with the greatest potential to harm children occur in marriages that have the greatest potential for reconciliation.”
But do any parents already in the divorce process still want to save their marriages?
William J. Doherty and his team of researchers asked 2,500 divorcing parents in Minnesota who were well along in that process whether they were interested in services to help them reconcile. In at least 10 percent of these divorce cases, both spouses were open to efforts to reconcile — and in another 30 percent, one spouse was interested in reconciliation. Results for couples earlier in the divorce process were even more promising.
In other words, a substantial number of today’s divorces may be preventable.
Why does this matter?
As a longtime jurist, Leah Ward Sears held a front-row seat in witnessing how family fragmentation affects children. She saw the overwhelming anger, depression and grief that plague children when their parents are splitting up. Her concerns grew as she also noticed links between divorce and poverty, divorce and juvenile delinquency, divorce and mental health illnesses, and even divorce and violent crimes. Even a modest reduction in divorce could benefit more than 400,000 U.S. children each year.
Can we as a society do anything to support the marital union of these children’s parents, especially those interested in saving their marriages?
We propose a modest reform that U.S. state legislatures can enact: the Second Chances Act, which combines a minimum, one-year waiting period for divorce with education about the option of reconciliation.
With regard to waiting periods, there is considerable variation among states. Forty-six states have waiting periods of six months or less, including 10 states that have no waiting periods. No other Western nation has waiting periods as short as the United States. In Western Europe, three-year waiting periods are common.
A one-year waiting period would ensure that the law is not moving couples — who are often at one of the most intense emotional periods of their lives — more rapidly toward divorce than perhaps they intended or wanted.
Our proposal, which we plan to roll out to a few states and then pursue nationally, would also require parents of minor children considering divorce to take a short, pre-filing parenting education course. This education component, which could be completed online, would include information on reconciliation (along with resources for couples who choose to pursue that course) and information on a non-adversarial approach to divorce. Forty-six states already require some form of parenting classes for divorcing couples with minor children, although most couples take the classes well into the divorce process. Tragically, educators who teach these classes report that some parents say such things as “I wish I had known these things when we first broke up.”
Empowering couples with this education before they divorce, combined with information about the option of reconciliation, is a win-win situation: It gives individuals a second chance for their marriages, and it gives everyone — regardless of whether they pursue reconciliation — a chance for a less adversarial divorce process.
We are under no illusion that the Second Chances Act is a panacea for lowering divorce rates. And we are certainly not advocating keeping destructive marriages together. (Under our proposal, the waiting period can be waived if there is abuse.) But we now know that a significant number of divorces may be preventable. This modest reform could spare many couples and children the pain of an unnecessary divorce.
William J. Doherty is a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project. Leah Ward Sears, a partner at the law firm of Schiff Hardin, was chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court from 2005 to 2009. They are the authors of “Second Chances: A Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce.”