"It's really rare for there to be a social experiment of this massive proportion," she said, so when the bill was passed by the Louisiana legislature, Sanchez, then teaching at Tulane University and specializing in family demography and public policy on marriage and family issues, jumped at the opportunity to explore it.
In their "Marriage Matters" study, Sanchez and her co-researchers, James Wright of Central Florida University and Steven Nock of the University of Virginia, have completed two rounds of interviews with couples who have chosen covenant marriage. They will conduct the third and last round of interviews this summer. Their work is supported by $750,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
"Politically, it's very interesting," Sanchez said. "It raises several questions such as if the state will acknowledge that there can be other contracts for marriage beside the traditional one, does that open the door to other forms as well, such as gay marriage? And will states uphold covenant marriage if it is not a recognized form there?"
Already the sociologists have found some striking differences between couples in covenant marriages and those in traditional marriages, Sanchez said.
Covenant marriage seeks to strengthen the commitment of couples, create stability for children and reduce divorce rates through various requirements. Couples must undergo pre-marital counseling and promise to seek further counseling should they encounter trouble in their relationship. They must also fully disclose to one another their sexual and financial histories as well as any other pertinent family matters.
In focus groups conducted by the researchers, the covenant couples said they felt that by choosing this form of marriage they are making a statement to society. They also tend to believe Americans have lost the ability to make a commitment to marriage and that this is eroding civil society. "They feel that if children perceive that they can't trust their parents' commitment to one another, why should they trust any commitment--to the schools, to the police, or to any other institution?" Sanchez said.
"Another difference we found is that the families, co-workers and friends of couples in covenant marriages are far more supportive of the marriage," Sanchez said. She added that some Louisiana churches now require that their members who plan to marry choose the covenant form, although overall, only about 1 to 2 percent of marrying couples are choosing the covenant form.
Covenant couples are much more likely to have met in church and much less likely to have been previously married or to have lived together before marriage. While among regularly married couples, about 40 percent had children from another marriage and 15-20 percent already had children together before being married, among the covenant marriage couples, only 20 percent had been married before and almost none had children together before they were wed. "They are really reserving childbearing for marriage," Sanchez said.
Covenant couples also differ from traditionally married couples in the survey in the way they relate to one another, tending to be happier together and much closer in their attitudes toward marriage, gender roles, division of labor and other issues. Strikingly absent from their conversation is any note of sarcasm or contempt, which has been identified in other research as toxic to marital happiness, Sanchez said.
But surprisingly, she added, outwardly they look like other American couples-60 percent of the women work outside the home and do most of the housework. Which raises another question: how is it they see themselves as traditionalists when the wives do not tend to be stay-at-home homemakers?
Sanchez said she and her co-researchers will be interested to see if covenant marriage, which is changing legal and political views of marriage, is the first step in a movement by the radical right toward a legislative agenda.