In a brief post the other day, I made a modest proposal: gay activists should offer a deal to opponents of gay marriage: if you support gay marriage, we’ll support efforts to reduce the divorce rate.
I wanted to unpack this idea a bit. First, some opponents of same sex marriage say their big fear is the slippery slope toward a weakening of the institution of marriage. Gay marriage would lead to polygamy etc. Gays have correctly pointed out that many other factors are far more likely to hurt marriage than same sex unions. Indeed, writers like Andrew Sullivan have persuasively argued that this drive for same sex marriage really assumes a reverence for the institution of marriage, something that ought to be encouraged, not discouraged.
So, my idea challenges gay activists: if it’s true that you revere the institution of marriage, put your energy and clout toward helping to strengthen it in a variety of ways (more on the particulars below).
Then, it challenges anti-gay marriage forces: if you are truly concerned mostly about the future of marriage, here’s a way you can insure that gay marriage will actually strengthen not harm that institution.
Of course what this potential offer would also do is smoke out those gay marriage opponents who have used the sanctity of marriage argument as an excuse for their real motivation, which is to deny gays equal status. And it would smoke out gay activists who are cavalier about the institution of marriage.
What could actually strengthen the institution of marriage? Below the fold I list several policy ideas but symbolically the most dramatic step would be for gay marriage activist to endorse the concept of Covenant Marriage. This is an idea promoted by religious conservatives and usually mocked by folks on the left. The idea was to give couples a choice between two types of marriage licenses, regular and a “Covenant Marriage.” Those who chose the latter would commit to premarital counseling, emphasizing the seriousness of the institution and agreeing to get marital counseling when troubles arise.” Can you imagine if there was a voluntary movement of gays to encourage the idea and indeed for some of them to choose Covenant Marriage for themselves?
Here are some other examples of ideas to preserve marriage included in a book by religious conservatives Tony Perkins and Harry Jackson. Yes, that’s the same Tony Perkins who runs the Family Research Council and opposes gay marriage — but before gay activists reject anything out of his mouth on those grounds consider some of these ideas with open mind. If you didn’t know who was proposing them, wouldn’t you support these ideas?:
Longer Waiting Periods
Lengthening the waiting period, which is the amount of time a couple must wait after filing for divorce or the time they must live separately before filing, is another way states have limited no-fault divorce. Waiting periods are beneficial for three reasons, according to David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values: They “encourage reconciliations … affirm the importance of the marriage commitment, without actually denying divorce … [and] are fairer to the spouse who is being left.”
A proposed 2004 Georgia bill would have extended the waiting period from 30 days to 180 days for couples with children (age 18 or younger) and 120 days for couples without children. The bill also required divorcing couples with minor children to attend a minimum of four hours of classes on how divorce affects children.
A proposed 2003 New Hampshire bill would have required a six-month waiting period for parents with minor children and attendance at classes on how to help children deal with divorce.
Several states have passed premarital education laws in an effort to help couples prepare for marriage and avoid divorce. Florida was the first, with its Marriage Preservation Act of 1998, which gives a discount to couples applying for a marriage license who attend a minimum of four hours of marriage preparation, allowing them to waive the three-day waiting period before the marriage can take place. The premarital course may include topics such as communication skills and may be taught by licensed psychologists, social workers or therapists, as well as clergy.
In 1999, Oklahoma passed similar legislation–reducing the marriage license fee for those who receive premarital education… The Iowa Senate recently passed a bill to increase the waiting period for a marriage license from 3 days to 20 days for couples who decline premarital counseling. In 2002, Michigan considered a bill offering a tax credit of up to $50 to cover the cost of a premarital or marriage education program.
Community Marriage Policies
Marriage Savers, an organization dedicated to strengthening and preserving marriages, has helped 183 cities in 40 states implement Community Marriage Policies (CMPs). CMPs are signed by clergy and judges in a community, who agree to require engaged couples to undergo at least four months of marriage preparation, including a premarital inventory that helps to identify the strengths and weaknesses of an engaged couple’s relationship. Both marriage preparation and the premarital inventory are administered by married couples trained as mentors, who meet with engaged couples at least four to six times before the marriage and continue meeting afterwards. Mentoring couples also help couples in troubled marriages and others who want to strengthen their marriage.
A recent study demonstrated the effectiveness of CMPs in reducing divorce rates. Counties that implemented CMPs had an 8.6-percent decline in their divorce rates over four years, compared to a 5.6-percent decline among counties without CMPs. Over seven years, CMP communities will experience a 17.5-percent decline in divorce rates, compared to a 9.4-percent decline in counties with no CMP.
Michigan Mediation Project
Some family courts in Michigan plan to have mediators trained in focused thinking mediation, a highly effective technique that teaches couples how to listen to each other and to resolve conflict, thereby reducing acrimony between spouses. The developer of focused thinking mediation, Stan Posthumus, has successfully used this method on divorced couples in The Third Circuit Court in Wayne County, Michigan. After working with Mr. Posthumus, 40 out of 50 couples who had repeatedly litigated over child custody issues settled their cases out of court, and after one year, only five couples returned to court.
I’m sure there are many other ideas worth considering. (How about making it illegal for 13 year olds to marry?) But the point is that gays who want to get married because they revere the institution of marriage should have no problem endorsing such efforts. And conservatives who really are tolerant but fear for the institution of marriage, should view this as an outstanding deal, recruiting passionate new advocates for key parts of the sanctity-of-marriage agenda.