The Most Pioneering Divorce Reform Effort In 40 Years

America has the highest rate of divorce in the Western world, and the consequences to our nation's families have been devastating.
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America has the highest rate of divorce in the Western world, and the consequences to our nation's families have been devastating.

Each year tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on the divorce-associated fallout, not including the millions spent by individuals hiring lawyers and obtaining a divorce. Social science research confirms the devastation -- the heavy emotional toll on children, women and men, the reduced longevity, the diminished physical health. Recidivist rates are alarming -- children of divorce are 89% more likely to divorce than their peers from intact families, and divorce rates for second and third marriages have soared to about 67% and 74%, respectively. And one million children a year continue to be split between their own mothers and fathers. While divorce may be necessary in certain circumstances, such as domestic abuse, research indicates the vast majority of divorces involve low-conflict marriages, many of which can be repaired. (The "Evolution of Divorce" by W. Bradfox Wilcox, provides a good summary of these alarming findings and the research behind them.)

Behind all the pie charts, there are countless anguishing personal stories of betrayal, abandonment, and financial hardship.

As Andrew Cherlin so eloquently put it in his recent book, we are on a marriage and divorce merry-go-round. And it is high time to get off.

Introducing the Coalition for Divorce Reform ("CDR").

After my controversial article opposing no-fault divorce last August, Chris Gersten, a former high ranking official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for launching the Federal government's Healthy Marriage Initiative, contacted me about creating a national organization to reform our divorce laws and educate the public about the impact of divorce. The result is the launch of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, and website, formed in order to increase awareness of the negative impact of divorce, encourage discussion and debate about the effect of divorce on our culture, and support passage of divorce reform legislation.

Below Chris talks with me from Washington, D.C. about the Coalition.

How did the CDR get started?

Chris: The breakdown of the traditional family is the social equivalent of the national debt as a crisis in America and the West. I have spent the past decade leading the effort to find government funding for marriage and relationship strengthening programs, and have realized for some time now that simply increasing the availability of marriage education isn't sufficient to address our divorce problems. We also need to overcome cultural influences that encourage and destigmatize divorce by making it so easy. I believe the marriage education infrastructure is sufficiently developed to now create a new field called "divorce reduction education."

According to the website, the CDR is a "non-partisan coalition of divorce reform leaders, marriage educators, domestic violence experts, scholars and concerned citizens dedicated to efforts to reduce unnecessary divorce and promote healthy marriages." Tell me more about the members and how it was formed.

Chris: I knew we needed draft sample legislation people could look at before becoming involved so we worked with divorce attorneys, domestic violence experts and victims of divorce to craft the Parental Divorce Reduction Act ("PDRA"). After the Act was drafted, I used the Internet and my database of contacts from a decade in the marriage education field to reach out to people from all walks of life. Our 17-member advisory board includes the nation's leading marriage educators, scholars, attorneys, political leaders and other concerned citizens. It's bi-partisan and includes people from left to right; some are victims of divorce themselves. I have also spoken with hundreds of community activists and state leaders.

You've been married to the same woman for 44 years so why the passion for divorce reform?

Chris: Everyone I know in the marriage education and divorce reform movements has a personal story motivating them to work on strengthening marriage and making sure more children grow up in strong two-parent families. My own experience took place when my sister's husband, a college professor, walked out one day and never saw his four children again. I saw the emotional devastation that divorce wreaked on those kids and my sister. I felt helpless to do anything about it, other than try to be as good an uncle as I could from 400 miles away. Ever since, I moved my career in the direction of family and marriage strengthening efforts. I still see the devastation of that divorce in the lives of my nieces and nephews more than 20 years later. The lives of over a million children a year are turned upside down because their parents can't or won't work to save their marriages. From my work in the field, I know that many marriages in crisis can be saved if even one partner is committed to working hard to save the relationship.

You've said to me that there's been nothing like this reform effort in over 40 years. But there have been other reform efforts. Why is the CDR different?

Chris: There have been serious efforts like The Americans for Divorce Reform, which basically compiled data on the Internet in one place, and the Covenant Marriage movement. Yet the divorce rate was not reduced. Covenant Marriage passed in only three states and has been a disappointment. The CDR has crafted a new kind of legislative proposal and created a network of marriage educators that never existed before. We now have a huge amount of compelling social science research on the impact of divorce, too. Now, we have social media as a vehicle to communicate quickly with hundreds of thousands of people who can work together in this effort. We have a grass roots effort of political leaders committed to passing the PDRA. You and I have been volunteering nearly full-time on this effort and dozens of others give significantly of their time. This coalescence of events and circumstances has never happened before.

Tell me about the Parental Divorce Reduction Act.

Chris: It's still a work in progress, but provides a new framework for divorce reform. It focuses on reducing unnecessary divorce among couples with minor children. Before filing for divorce, couples must complete divorce reduction classes of four-eight hours (two hours online). This program is a first cousin of marriage education and will be modeled from the top programs in the country and taught by certified marriage educators. The classes will educate couples about the harmful effects of divorce, help them develop skills to improve their relationships, and work with couples who want to reconcile. Couples will then wait eight months before filing for divorce. This is a reflection and reconciliation period during which many couples will continue to work on their relationship. These requirements must be fulfilled before the divorce filing because afterwards attorneys take over and couples struggle over children and finances. There is also an opt-out for victims of domestic violence.

Why do you think passage of this legislation will reduce divorce?

Chris: I know passage will reduce divorce. For 25 years, marriage education classes have demonstrated they reduce divorce by 50%. The U.S. military invests heavily in classes for the armed forces, and it's proven to be a good investment by helping keep couples together.

But what chance does the PDRA have of passing the state legislatures?

Chris: A good chance, even though it won't be easy. But I know we can pass this in several states in 2012 where we have good leadership and state legislators already committed to passage. We'll need real results in a few states before the rest of the nation will follow. But once people see divorce reduction, and the cost savings to taxpayers, I think a dozen states will pass the PDRA over the next five years, with the trend continuing.

Tell me about the CDR's new blog.

Chris: Social media is critical for a movement strong enough to change our culture and current divorce law, and our website will be filled with useful information for those working to change divorce laws or even contemplating divorce. Our bloggers include accomplished writers and bloggers with experience in the field of marriage education, divorce reform, divorce itself, law and social policy. And this is just the beginning.

There's bound to be opposition. And plenty of people will claim you're trying to take away their right to divorce under no-fault that exists now in all 50 states, in some for as many as 40 years. What are your thoughts on this?

Chris: Children must have rights, too. It should not be easier to get a divorce than a driver's license. We know the devastating consequences of divorce on children so we owe it to the children to slow down the divorce process and give kids a fighting chance to grow up in intact two-parent families. If a couple if set on divorce, our legislation won't stop them; it will just slow down the process and hopefully save marriages.

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