North Carolina State Senators Austin Allran (R) of Hickory and Warren Daniel (R) of Morganton have recently introduced a new bill titled the “Healthy Marriage Act” into the NC legislature that appears to be motivated by a desire to reduce the number of divorces. Presumably, the senators assume that there will be fewer divorces if couples are required to jump through a few more hoops before a judge is permitted to dissolve the marriage. I can only infer that the senators have some theory about the cause and effect of certain things that they believe affect divorce.
They could not be more wrong.
Senators as Social Theorists
The first change is to increase the waiting period from one to two years. I can only guess that the senators, posing as social theorists, believe that an extra year to think it over will cause couples to have an epiphany that they really should not divorce. Of course, there is not the slightest evidence anywhere that another year of waiting will reduce the divorce rate. New Jersey, for example, requires eighteen months of separation and there is no evidence of a lower divorce rate in NJ. A curious twist to the new law is that the two year waiting period can be spent in the same house. One partner begins the two year period by filing some notice of intent. I guess it will have to be notarized but I also expect it won’t be too difficult to game the system and backdate the notice. In an even more curious twist the law appears to require no sex during the two year period. Perhaps our scholar-senators believe the estranged couple won’t be able to keep their hands off each other and every time they slip and have sex they would have to start the two years over again. Again, the gaming of this system will be rampant and just contribute to cynicism at best and more litigation at worst.
There is the added problem that couples who have decided to divorce should not be living together because the growing rancor is bad for the entire family. I expect that the only result of this requirement will be a noticeable increase in domestic violence cases. The law does not prevent people from separating and most will. The ones who will stay in the same house will be couples in which one spouse belligerently refuses to leave and the other spouse lacks the financial resources to move. These can lead to particularly ugly situations.
The second set of changes is a requirement that during the two years of waiting each member of the couple must complete courses in conflict resolution, communication skills and a four hour course on the impact on children. They must also attend marriage counseling. Now the silliness will really begin. Although it is true that bad communication and conflict resolution skills contribute to the failure of marriages, there is no evidence that a two or three hour course on communication skills or conflict resolution skills will substantially modify communication and conflict styles in individuals. Even if both partners were eager and willing to learn it would require many hours of learning and practice to even make a dent. The law will require hours; not results. So for most people these courses will become a farce and simply create a new industry in which court approved instructors will earn extra money teaching these course. I teach both conflict resolution and communication skills to couples and know that it takes a lot of time and effort and a lot of mitigation for such courses to have any effect.
All the King’s Horses
Motivation is the reason the program will fail. Once a married person decides to divorce, the marriage is dead. Marriages do not die from sudden breakage; they erode over time particle by particle so that by the time a spouse announces that he/she want a divorce that marriage has been dead for some time; months, tears even decades.
For the person who wants the divorce, courses will have no impact. And if one of the partners does not want the divorce and unanticipated distortion here will give that person the power to throw a monkey wrench in the gears by simply refusing to attend the courses. Unless the senators have some answers to that which they have not revealed it will bring back the terrible times when one partner could hold another in a marriage against their will for indefinite periods. I foresee more and more domestic violence complaints.
The last requirement that couples attend a course on the impact of divorce on children. I presume that the senators think such courses would all conclude that divorces are bad for children and that no responsible parent would subject their kids to such a condition. But the data is not so clear. All things being equal, growing up in a happy intact family is better than growing up in an amicably divorced family. But that is not what we are dealing with here. Growing up in a high conflict family is not good for kids. Growing up amidst bitter conflict, verbal abuse, depressed parents, parents who despise each other and families with a high degree of emotional disarray is not good for kids and amicable civilized divorce may well be a superior alternative. Now what if the person who teaches the course presents such material? I wonder if our senators will find that acceptable. I suspect not because I also suspect that our senators do not have the faintest idea of what the literature says and simply assumes that the course on divorce and children will accord with their own ignorance. I can foresee curriculum committees, probably staffed by lawyers, vetting the proposed course to decide which ones paint the required dismal picture. It won’t be pretty and it won’t prevent a single divorce.
The bottom line here is that such laws accomplish nothing other than adding new layers of harassment to the process of divorces. It will make a lot of money for lawyers and myriad mental health practitioners who will clamor to clean up on all these required courses. And in cases where a recalcitrant spouse refuses to attend the counseling and courses thus holding up the divorce it will mean more business for the Nevada divorce industry where you can establish residency is six weeks and be divorced days later.
Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.
Before he was a divorce mediator, he was a divorce attorney. Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D., is one of the most experienced mediators in the United States. Since 1980, he has mediated hundreds of civil disputes and approximately four thousand divorces including many complex multi-million dollar matters.
Author of several books on divorce, Sam Margulies is an empathetic and knowledgeable guide through the difficult journey of divorce. Contact Sam with your questions and to talk about your divorce.