DIVORCE LEGISLATION: How to achieve ‘happily ever after’

An interesting article for parents on the importance of growingly popular courses now offered to couples who file for divorce and have minor children at home. Courses such as these help educate the couple in the hopes of avoiding divorce or at least learning to help deal with the effects of divorce on the child. Classes, books and games such as Earthquake in Zipland can help ease the feelings of loss for the child of divorce and help him or her cope with the transition.

By Ashley Sanchez

The majority of Americans hope to get married and live happily ever after.

But the high rate of divorce and the declining rate of marriage suggest that we might not know how. As with any knowledge deficit, education can help fill the gap.

During the 2007 legislative session, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, introduced a bill to give a discount on marriage licenses to couples who attend premarital education classes. The bill passed and went into effect last year.

This session, Chisum is proposing education for couples on the other end of the marriage spectrum. HB 480 would apply to couples who have minor children in the home and file for divorce based on the grounds of insupportability (the category chosen by Texas’ couples seeking a no-fault divorce, he explained to me). Those couples would have to submit with the divorce petition proof that at least one of them had completed a crisis
marriage education course.

The bill stipulates that the course must be at least 10 hours long and “include instruction in: 1) conflict management; 2) communication skills; and 3) forgiveness skills.” Chisum told me that because those skills are beneficial in many aspects of people’s lives, the courses wouldn’t do any harm. Moreover, though the bill wouldn’t help every couple avoid divorce, he said, “This is an effort to put as many back together as we can.”

Chisum is not trying to trap people in bad marriages. The bill explicitly waives the education requirement for marriages with violence or abuse, whether it’s mental, emotional, psychological or verbal.

The bill also stipulates that only one partner is required to attend the class. Thus, a spouse cannot trap the other in the marriage by refusing to attend. Both partners are encouraged to attend, however, by the bill’s provision that a judge can use a partner’s refusal to take the class as a factor in other aspects of the divorce settlement, such as the division of the estate.

Chisum’s bill seems to have no negatives. At worst, it eats up 10 hours of someone’s time, an amount similar, I would guess, to the average time that separated spouses spend just in the first month shuttling the children between their two homes. And if their marriage isn’t restored, they might well find that their divorces are more amicable and their future relationships better because of the skills they acquire during the course.

At its best, the bill would help couples who would otherwise have divorced learn the skills they need to nurse their relationship back to health and happiness. That’s a victory for the adults and children alike.

Because Chisum said that Michael Smalley, founder and executive director of the Smalley Marriage and Family Center in The Woodlands, has been conducting such courses successfully, I asked Smalley about his program.

Of the couples in struggling marriages who participated, Smalley found that eight years later, 87 percent were satisfied and still together.

Though his data comes from an in-house longitudinal study, other research has documented the effectiveness of a variety of marriage programs across the country.

Even in the absence of a program, however, unhappy couples can turn things around. A 2002 Institute for American Values’ report (from a team led by University of Chicago sociology professor Linda J. Waite) found that among couples who were in troubled marriages, 64 percent of those who stuck it out were happily married five years later. Furthermore, “(u)nhappily married adults who divorced or separated were no happier, on average, than unhappily married adults who stayed married.”

The report notes that divorce itself can bring “new sources of distress, from financial troubles to new relationship problems with the ex.” At the report’s end, the authors explain that good and bad marriages might not be fixed opposites, “but the same marriage at two different points in time. …. If marriage is no panacea, neither is divorce.”

Of course, plenty of people testify that their divorce did, in fact, make them much happier than did their miserable marriage. No legislation threatens their right to choose that path, and our society is widely accepting of that decision.

Marriage education in general, and Rep. Chisum’s bill in particular, simply provide a relatively low-cost opportunity to help some couples achieve their happily ever after.

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