A Modest Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce

Former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Sears (on the short list for Obama appointments to the Supreme Court) and family relations professor William Doherty have teamed up to produce what they call, without irony, a modest proposal to reduce “unnecessary divorce”: the Second Chances Act.
The Second Chances Act is a brilliant piece of work by two of the nation’s leading pro-marriage liberals. (Full disclosure: The authors kindly give me far more credit than I am due by including me in a list of people to be thanked for “contributions,” which in my case consisted of attending one meeting in which an early draft of the report and the legislation were presented.)
The Second Chances Act proposes new model legislation that includes a one-year waiting period for divorce, along with a requirement that parents of minor children considering divorce take a short online divorced parenting education course, which would include information on reconciliation. Spouses could trigger the one-year waiting period without actually filing for divorce by sending their mates a formal letter of notice. These requirements would be waived in cases of domestic violence.
The genesis of the Second Chances Act was Hennepin County, Minn., Judge Bruce Peterson’s observation that at least some of the people he was seeing in his family court looked as if they needed a “rest stop” on the “divorce superhighway.”
“When Judge Peterson looked at his own court system, widely acknowledged as a progressive one, he saw attempts to meet nearly every need of divorcing couples — legal and financial assistance, protection orders, parenting education, and more — except for reconciliation,” Sears and Doherty write.
The assumption of the entire legal system is that by the time a person files for divorce the marriage is already dead. Amazingly, no one really had ever asked how many people filing for divorce might be interested in reconciliation.
So Doherty teamed up with colleagues to do some groundbreaking original research testing that assumption.
What they found shocked the family law community: “New research shows that about 40 percent of U.S. couples already well into the divorce process say that one or both of them are interested in the possibility of reconciliation.” Further, in about 10 percent of divorces, both the husband and the wife are interested in reconciliation (quite likely unbeknownst to either of them).
“This finding is stunning,” Sears and Doherty point out. “The research findings presented in this report clearly suggest that today’s very high U.S. divorce rate is not only costly to taxpayers, it is not only harmful to children, it is also, to a degree that we are only now understanding, preventable.”
How can unnecessary divorce be prevented?
The waiting period is one idea.
According to Doherty and Sears, a 2009 study by Thorsten Kneip and Gerrit Bauer, “Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise the Divorce Rates in Western Europe?” found that 80 percent of the increase in divorce rates between 1970 and 1990 could be attributed to the eliminating or shortening of waiting periods.
The scientific case for the impact of waiting periods in reducing divorce is not bulletproof, these scholars acknowledge.
But Doherty and Sears suggest a one-year waiting period combined with a parenting education class that puts interested couples in touch with reconciliation resources should have an even bigger impact than waiting periods alone in reducing unnecessary divorce.
Put it this way: If a divorce can be prevented by a one-year waiting period, and giving both spouses information on reconciliation, then it certainly is an unnecessary divorce.
Why should government strive to eliminate unnecessary divorce?
Because, to state it simply, unnecessary divorce hurts children.
Doherty and Sears sum up the social science evidence: “We now know that divorce on average has dramatic effects on children’s lives, across the life course.”
Rolling family fragmentation back to 1980 levels, they write, would result in “half a million fewer children suspended from school, about 200,000 fewer children engaging in delinquency or violence, a quarter of a million fewer children receiving therapy, about a quarter of a million fewer smokers, about 80,000 fewer children thinking about suicide, and about 28,000 fewer children attempting suicide.”
28,000 fewer children attempting suicide?
Now that’s a second chance worth a second look.