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Can the Church Take the Lead? Saving Marriages and Preventing Divorce

Originally published at Seattle PI

Okay, in order to ease the strain and allow a civilized consideration of this subject, let’s not get personal here. Anyone who has been divorced, is the child of divorce or has close friends and family members who have divorced — in other words, nearly everyone these days — knows the pain of it. There is a tendency when the matter is raised to look embarrassed and move on. Or the subject is passed off as one of life’s inevitable realities, like death, which, one often hears, divorce resembles.

So let us objectify the problem and think of it as a public issue, as we properly can. The failing institution of marriage is key to much else that is destructive in national life. It is not just about us personally. It is about the future of American society.

Can we all agree, to start, that with by far the highest marriage dissolution rate in the world–twice that of European countries and three times that of Japan–there are too many divorces in America? With odds running better than 60 percent that a new marriage will end in divorce or separation, isn’t it clear that this prospect is a source of anxiety for the young?

Perhaps it is no wonder that the number of cohabiting (unmarried) couples has risen from 523,000 in 1970 to 3,661,000 in 1994.

Can we also acknowledge that too many people get married for the wrong reasons, making subsequent divorce likely? And can we take it as a given that many others get divorced for the wrong reasons, making their own later misery unnecessary? Thanks to gauzy romance in song and film, marriage has been oversold, but thanks to assorted liberation movements, so has divorce.

Can we all accept as statistical truth that over one million children each year see their parents divorce, and that before they reach 18, half of that group will see a second divorce? Can we accept as accurate the studies by Judith Wallerstein (described in Second Chances), showing that the psychological and financial damage to children in a divorce is frequently endured not just for years, but for decades?

A number of major social problems correlate with divorce. Among them are poverty, crime, poor performance in school and mental and physical illness. Surely, by now, we all know this.

If so, we can move straight to the real question: What can society do about it?

The answer involves government policy to some degree, but it primarily involves the conceivably stronger role of social custom. In any case, the movement to lower divorce rates today is getting its surest foothold in churches. This is entirely appropriate, and high time. Upwards of 85 percent of people claim to believe in God. According to pollster George Gallup, Jr., 69 percent of all adults are members of a church or synagogue, and 43 percent attend weekly. So the influence of religion is at least potentially far reaching.

Nationally, despite other trends toward secularization, nearly three quarters of all marriages still take place in a church or synagogue. For people of almost all faiths, marriage is seen as a sacrament; and, practically speaking, married families are the backbone of America’s 300,000 religious congregations.Therefore, if any institution has a stake in cutting the divorce rate, it is the church. The responsibility is not exclusive, but it is major.

Yet a syndicated columnist on ethics and religion, Michael J. McManus, has gained wide attention with his charge that “Too many churches are simply blessing machines or wedding factories, grinding out weddings on Saturday, with no strategy on how to help those couples be successful.” In speeches to pastors, priests and rabbis, McManus typically asks how many of the clergy in the past year have preached on the subject of marriage and divorce. “Typically,” says McManus, “only one or two hands go up.”

Finally, however, previously sanguine or reticent churches are re-examining their policies. In Marriage Savers (Zondervan Publishing House), McManus and his wife, Harriet, describe the efforts of increasing numbers of churches to confront the problems of failing marriages. Drawing on successful programs from many denominations and communities, the McManus’ have developed a menu of initiatives for

  • helping prospective couples avoid a bad marriage before it begins
  • providing engaged couples “insurance” against divorce
  • offering people in troubled marriages, and even some who have separated or divorced, a means to reconcile.
  • assisting people with strong marriages to enrich them further–and perhaps then to be of service to others.

Crucial to all the activities is establishment of more extensive and mandatory pre-marital “mentoring” of couples. To be married in this church, you must meet our standards, a couple is told, and that includes a rigorous preparatory program. Older couples in a congregation are given responsibility for much of the interaction.

It also is important that churches across a wide demoninational spectrum in a community cooperate in building high expectations of the process leading to marriage. This helps prevent “church shopping” for weddings. In communities where ecumenical cooperation has taken place, divorce rates start coming down, according to the McManus’.

A recent “48 Hours” broadcast on CBS showed some of those localities, including Modesto, California, which began a Marriage Savers program a decade ago. Modesto has seen a 40 percent decline in divorces in the intervening years. Other communities, such as Peoria, Illinois and Albany, Georgia, have seen a 10 to 20 percent drop in divorces only a few years after the program began.

It is possible that the McManus’ claims overstate the direct role of Marriage Savers in such communities. Nationally, divorce rates have leveled off generally. But even if the program, in a short time, can directly touch only a few already existing marriages in a community, it does set a new tone for the others. Word travels. Congregations not officially part of the program nonetheless start to re-examine their own policies. Perhaps even non-religious families start to take preparation for the problems that will face a newly married couple with as much seriousness as they now take preparations for the wedding. In short, attitudes and expectations change. Customs change.

The first element of change is directed at couples or those contemplating marriage: Saving Your Marriage Before it Starts , as the title of a book by Dr. Les Parrott II and Dr. Leslie Parrott, proclaims. The Parrotts are a married pair of professors at Seattle Pacific University who conduct what is regarded as the most popular course on their campus and is the basis for a number of similar courses at other colleges. The program, supported by the M. J. Murdock Trust of Vancouver, Washington, includes an explicit religious dimension in the conviction that allegiance to God tends to undergird the strongest relationships. The relatively low divorce rates of regular churchgoers would seem to bear that out.

But the Parrotts’ program also includes advice that anyone would want to ponder carefully–and which many love-struck youth confess they have never considered at all. High on the list is the typical gender differences between men and women that have been the subject of a number of relationship books lately. Another is the fine art of fighting fairly. Rules for good communication that are familiar to any high school counselor (Don’t make “you” statements, make “I” statements, in order to defuse tension) are brand new to many college kids, however well-meaning. With fewer older models of marriage around them, students tend to think that they can change their partners’ objectionable habits and views after the wedding. Learning otherwise can be temporarily painful, but it can prevent a lifelong mistake.

Students are almost always surprised to find that “trial marriage”– living together before marriage–is statistically one of the strongest predictors of relationship dissolution. According to the McManus’ book, a stunning 85 percent of couples cohabiting outside of marriage wind up separating or, if they do marry, divorcing.

In the McManus program an extensive pre-marital inventory called “Prepare” has been created that is said to predict with great accuracy which couples will divorce. It and similar surveys of attitudes and values are now being used by 250,000 couples a year nationally. Of that group, roughly ten percent, 25,000, decide not to marry after taking the inventory. It turns out that the couples had not recognized how far apart they were on such issues as dealing with extended family, career ambitions and money management.

In a typical example from the McManus’ own church, after discussing the inventory with her fiancee and a mentoring couple, “Lena,” a woman in suburban Washington, DC, discovered that her prospective husband really resented the idea of having children. For Lena, however, not having children was unimaginable. Previous discussions beteween them had not brought out this problem clearly, though they had been dating for five years.

“Coming to such a realization is not a defeat,” says McManus, “it is a success. These are couples who otherwise would have been in divorce courts before long.”

For the rest of the inventory takers, even mature couples usually reach new levels of understanding about each other and ways to improve their relationship. The mentoring by established couples proves especially helpful in follow-up sessions. These couples themselves have been to some variation of “Marriage Encounter,” a program to enrich existing marriages. Engaged couples apparently tend to open up more easily to other lay couples than to the single authority figure of a priest or pastor. But they are not expected to share any intimate confidences–except with each other.

The Catholic Church nationally has operated such a program for some years. In the McManus’ own church, Fourth Presbyterian in Bethesda, Maryland, 38 mentor couples have been trained in the past five years and have worked with 135 engaged couples. Twenty five of the engagements were broken off after the pre-marital inventory. Of the 110 who completed the several session program of mentoring and married, only two have since separated. “It’s not a perfect record,” says Mike McManus, “but it is close to marriage insurance.”

Almost as important as giving engaged and dating couples a better start is trying to strengthen–or rescue–endangered relationships. Again, the Catholic Church, with a program called Retrouvaille (“finding and joining again”) is better organized than are mainline Protestants. Couples who have come “back from the brink” share details of how they overcame instances of abandonment, adultery, alcoholism or even physical abuse to retrieve their marriages.

In the case of one friend of mine in Washington, DC, the divorce was final when Retrouvaille nonetheless was attempted. “It restored my marriage, and really it turned my whole life around,” he now says.

In another case–a couple I know in Northern Virginia–the wife notes, “I was desperate. We both had been going through hell for years, though in different ways. Retrouvaille brought us back.”

At St. David’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Florida, the Rev. Dick McGinnis found that he could not reach couples having serious troubles in their marriages. After confessing his inadequacy in prayer, he asked his congregation one Sunday if any of them was “a couple who is in the healing phase of a troubled marriage,” and, if so, could he meet with them? He was stunned to get seven volunteers immediately. These survivor couples then began to mentor others with current problems, and of 40 couples mentored in two years, 38 of their marriages were saved.

In Roswell, Georgia, a similar ministry for step-families was pioneered by a United Methodist minister, but is staffed by couples who have learned how to make a blended family work. Out of 250 couples with problems, the mentors were able to help 230 “make it” — a 92 percent success rate.

Mike and Harriet McManus were in Seattle and other Puget Sound cities recently at the invitation of Jeff Kemp, the former Seahawk quarterback who heads the Washington Family Council. Over 150 ministers met with them, including representatives from varied Christian denominations and one rabbi. The heaviest response was from evangelical churches. Together they worked on a “Community Marriage Policy” that will unite religious groups across denominational lines.

The movement does not have a united political program, as such . But there is a gathering concern about no-fault divorce laws that have been implemented in almost every state since 1969. Instead of reducing the incidence of divorce, divorce numbers have rocketed in the past 30 years. Complete repeal may not be in order. But where children are involved, growing numbers of family experts are arguing for what former Education Secretary Bill Bennett calls social and legal “guardrails” to save marriages from destruction.

Meanwhile, however, the Marriage Savers movement has discovered many lessons about how the voluntary sector of society can help. Perhaps the most important may be these: 1) Make the effort ecumenical and community-wide in order to encourage change in expectations and custom; and 2) Enlist couples who already are married, and who care.

The results will benefit individuals. Cumulatively, they could do more to repair a tattered society than any government program.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Civic Leadership.