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Debate: Covenant marriage

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Are covenant marriages a good idea?

Background and context

Divorce is an unfortunate reality of American life. Recent statistics compiled by the US Census Bureau show that between 40% and 50% of marriages end in divorce. Divorce can have a negative effect on society; accordingly, advocates of divorce reform have suggested giving couples the choice of covenant marriage. Thus, couples could either marry under the current “no fault” system in which either party can, at any time, dissolve the marriage, or they could choose to sign up to a covenant marriage option if they want a partnership that is more difficult to dissolve. Before entering into a covenant marriage, premarital counselling is required; counselling would also be required prior to granting a divorce. The first laws recognising covenant marriage were passed by the state of Louisiana in 1997. Arizona followed in 1998 and Arkansas in 2001; advocates are lobbying other state assemblies to pass similar legislation. The movement received considerable publicity on Valentine’s Day 2005, when Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and his wife renewed their marriage vows of thirty years with a ceremonial signing of covenant marriage documents, along with a thousand other couples. Governor Huckabee (an ordained Southern Baptist minister) is publicly campaigning to halve Arkansas’ high divorce rate over ten years, and sees promoting covenant marriage as an important part of achieving that aim.[1]

See Wikipedia: Covenant marriage for more background.

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Abuse: Do covenant marriages have the potential to reduce cases of domestic abuse?

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Yes

Covenant marriage might eliminate the problem of X husbands abusing their former spouses. A 1991 Justice Department study concluded that current husbands/fathers account for only 9% of the cases of domestic abuse. The rest of the abuse was perpetrated by former husbands, boyfriends or transient partners. Without divorce, women may be less likely to be involved with abusive men.[2]

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No

Abusive marriages may be prolonged by covenant marriages. In a covenant marriage, a partner must prove that abuse actually occurred to be permitted to end the marriage. This especially worries advocates for battered women who say that proving domestic abuse can be difficult and the waiting period makes women stay in abusive relationships longer. In addition, mental abuse is not seen as a legitimate reason to end a marriage.[3]

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Yes

The offended spouse receives many benefits and empowerment in a covenant marriage. In a covenant marriage, the offended spouse is the only one who can ask for the divorce. This gives the offended spouse many benefits in negotiating the end of the marriage.[4]

A covenant marriage is a way for women to have more security in marriage. A women clearly has more to lose in assuming a marriage will last forever, especially if she puts her career on hold to care for children. Making this a more likely outcome through a covenant marriage is an important thing.[5]

Religious belief is only one reason to want marriages to succeed; society as a while has an interest in stable families. Advocates for covenant marriage, Amitai Etzioni, founder and director of the Washington-based Communitarian Network, says, “One can be deeply concerned with strengthening the commitment of marriage without favouring traditional or hierarchical forms of marriages or denying women full equal standing.”[6]

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No

Some feminists feel initiatives for covenant marriage simply conceal the hidden agenda of the antifeminist Moral Majority. Liberal commentator Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, says covenant marriages “enforce a narrow and moralistic vision of marriage by rendering divorce more painful and more punitive.” Many advocates of covenant marriage laws are self-described conservative Christians; religious groups are major supporters of covenant marriage laws. Louisiana NOW President Terry O’Neill points out that “’Covenant’ and ‘covenant marriage’ are terms with a very specific meaning in the Christian community.” Conflating religious values with secular laws on marriage is wrong.[7]

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Yes

The premarital counseling by a trained counselor that is a requirement of covenant marriage enables the future husband and wife to get to know each other well. Issues such as how to raise children, how to split housework, and financial matters are discussed and explored with the counsellor. Covenant marriage are more restrictive but allows for divorce in specific circumstances: adultery; physical or sexual abuse of a spouse or child; abandonment of at least one year; incarceration of a spouse for a felony conviction; spouses living separate and apart for two years; and a legal separation of one year, or 18 months if a minor child is involved.

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No

If partners enter a covenant marriage, they would not be able to divorce until they are separated for at least two years. People could get stuck in marriages and be unable to continue with their lives even when the marriage has produced no children and the spouses have no significant assets to divide. Also, covenant marriage lays the burden of proof on the spouse who files for divorce. A judge must be convinced that grounds for divorce actually exist. In addition, although a covenant marriage can be dissolved because of a felony conviction, a partner’s string of misdemeanours is not grounds for divorce.

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Children: Are covenant marriages good for the children of marriages?

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Yes

Covenant marriages are good for children because the make divorces less likely, and divorces are bad for children. They lose stability and security. Children whose parents have divorced have higher rates of suicide. They are more likely to commit crimes and abuse drugs. Their education suffers, and they are less likely to graduate from college and more likely to drop out of high school. The detrimental financial effects of divorce also affect these children. Children of divorce must adapt to many changes in their family environment and are at greater risk of being abused. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers summer 1997 newsletter says, “Only acts of war and the events of natural disasters are more harmful to a child’s psyche than the divorce process.”

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No

Covenant marriages force families in conflict to stay together, which has the potential to harm children more than divorce. Research shows that when parents stay in a high-conflict marriage, children fare worse than when their parents actually divorce. Children must be considered when parents divorce, but with appropriate nurturing and support, children can cope with divorce and eventually have strong marriages of their own. In fact, studies show that a child of divorced parents is no more likely than a child of married parents to divorce as an adult. And after all, until the twentieth century, mortality rates were such that many children experienced losing a parent while still young and having to adjust to their surviving parent’s remarriage.

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Covenant vs no-fault: Are covenant marriages a better option than no-fault laws?

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Yes

Passage of no-fault divorce laws resulted in an onslaught of divorce and a breakdown of the American family, and covenant marriages can help resolve this. In 1968, the year before California adopted the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, the US had 584 000 divorces (2.9 per 1 000 Americans). After 30 years of no-fault divorce, the number of divorces had reached 1,135,000 annually. Covenant marriages are the answer. Research has shown that 33% to 45% of couples on the brink of divorce may reconcile if they are legally prevented from divorcing for six months as specified in a covenant marriage.

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No

Covenant marriage laws are weak. The US Supreme Court ruled more than 50 years ago that the state of residence at the time of the divorce determines the laws governing the divorce. So if the covenant marriage partners move to a state without covenant marriage laws, they are free to use the no-fault system anyway. This makes for a likely weak covenant marriage system.

Covenant marriage's mandate for counseling both before marriage and before divorce could be costly. States that have passed covenant marriage laws have done little to provide low-cost or free counselors for those who cannot afford them. In addition, those who choose covenant marriages are the least likely to divorce anyway. Studies show that those in covenant marriages have higher incomes and education, are more involved in their churches, and take marriage more seriously than those who do not select covenant marriages. These traits are all predictors of a successful marriage, regardless of the requirements of covenant marriage.

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Choice issues: Would covenant marriages be truly optional if implemented?

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Yes

No one is going to be forced to have a covenant marriage, but it should be available to people as a choice. If more people choose covenant marriages, it simply proves that they reject the looser moral values of the liberal establishment. It would be unconstitutional for the government to discriminate in favour of one form of marriage over another, and in practice most people will have no idea what kind of marriage their neighbours, and other kids’ parents have.

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No

If covenant marriage is given legal status, it will rapidly become a forced norm. Couples planning to be married will face pressures from each other, their families, their ministers, and society at large to choose a covenant marriage. The traditional marriage will therefore be seen as a second-best option. One result of this is that many couples who would not have freely chosen a covenant marriage will feel forced into one.

Covenant marriage is essentially a religious concept, which means that it's legal stature would threaten the notion of separation of church and state. Couples who choose traditional marriages may also be discriminated against, and their children looked down upon. And by creating an expectation that those in traditional marriages are likely to divorce, these laws may actually lead to more marriage break-downs.

See also

External links

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