Some time ago I was listening to a popular radio show host talking about marriage and divorce. A caller challenged the host with the idea that maybe more people should really just work out their problems instead of getting divorced. The host, who is quite open about the divorce which ended his first marriage, was irate at the “arrogance” of the caller. Didn’t he know that people who divorce have usually been through hell and back again in order to save their marriages?
While the caller might have worded things a bit differently, a new report by William Doherty, professor of family studies at the University of Minnesota, and Leah Ward Sears, a lawyer and former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, “Second Chances: A proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce,” challenges the notion that most divorces follow a long process of rancorous difficulties which the spouses have rigorously attempted to solve. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, Doherty and Sears outline some of the results of their research, which include the revelation that between 50 and 66 percent (depending on the study) of couples divorcing “had average happiness and low levels of conflict in the years before the divorce.” Further, Doherty’s research team, which surveyed 2,500 divorcing couples in Minnesota, found that for 40 percent of couples well into the process of divorce, at least one spouse was “interested in services to help them reconcile.” For those not as far along in the process, there was even greater willingness to get help for their marriages.
Given the harm done both to adults and children by divorce, one might think that there would be an incentive by the states to set a waiting period for divorce in order to let people cool down or seek help in reconciliation. But what Doherty and Sears found was that 46 states have a waiting period of fewer than six months. Ten states have no waiting period at all. While 46 states do require parenting classes for those divorcing with minor children, these courses often come way too late in the process to help.
Doherty and Sears are proposing not only that states require longer waiting periods for divorce, but that information about reconciliation be connected to the information about parenting. While they note that their proposals will not be a “panacea for lowering divorce rates,” it seems clear that, given their findings that so many couples have a relatively happy, low-conflict history to start with, and some willingness to seek help in reconciling, their solution just might help a lot of hurting couples—and their kids.