Should Reconciliation Services be Offered to Divorcing Couples?

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Forty years ago the most common response to a couple who began talking about divorce was the advice--"see if you can work things out." This advice came from family and friends as well as most professionals who worked with families. Today, reconciliation or "trying to work things out" is hardly in our vocabulary.

As William Doherty, Brian Willoughby and Bruce Peterson note in their recent examination of the services for divorcing families, there is "assistance for nearly every situation for divorcing couples (legal, financial, protection, parenting education) except for reconciliation." These scientists have begun to examine this gap and provide some new insight into the opportunities for reconciliation.

To find out more about couple's interest in reconciliation, Doherty and his colleagues surveyed couples who were participating in a mandated parent education program in Minneapolis. About 2500 people completed the survey which asked two questions: 1) "Even at this point, do you think your divorce could be prevented if one or both of you works hard to save the marriage?' and 2) "If the court offered a reconciliation service, would you seriously consider trying it?"

Among this group, about 15 percent of the men indicated that they thought the marriage could be "saved" and about 8 percent of the women. In terms of reconciliation services, men were about twice as likely (18 percent) to report an interest in the service compared to women (8 percent).

The authors took a closer look at the characteristics of the individuals and the couples who indicated an interest in the reconciliation services. The only strong predictor of an interest in reconciliation services was having a partner who initiated the divorce. This finding was true for both men and women. Other factors that had a modest effect were being older, having younger children, and having more children.

These findings do not lead to a strong conclusion that there are a lot of divorcing couples who would be interested in an alternative to divorce, but how many is enough? By the time these couples are participating in mandated parent education, they are often well into the divorce process and may have resigned themselves to the divorce. Would their interest in alternatives be greater if there was an earlier opportunity to explore alternatives? The legislature in Minnesota recently authorized an initial exploration of reconciliation services. The project titled, "Minnesota Marriages on the Brink" which will be led by the University of Minnesota will explore the types of services and opportunities to help Minnesota couples handle distressed marriages. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new source of support to families.

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