Marriage merger

National | Some on the left are joining forces with the cultural right to fight divorce, but America's divorce culture remains very strong

Issue: "Walking the tightrope," Feb. 10, 2001

In 1991, Diane Sollee suffered an epiphany. That's her word-"suffered." As a highly placed executive at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), Ms. Sollee supervised the professional education of marriage therapists, staffed the group's marriage-and-family research committee, publicly promoted therapy as the best option for couples considering divorce, and chatted up the media as a therapy "expert." Not only had Ms. Sollee reached her career zenith, but she also felt she'd found her calling, that she was doing a genuinely good work.

But during one of those media chats, the first rays of revelatory light pierced her brain. "I was bragging to a New York Times reporter that AAMFT had just gotten another state licensed for marriage-family therapy," she remembered. "The reporter, who I had become friends with, said, 'Diane, you're getting more and more states licensed, but the divorce rate is staying the same. Why is that?'"

The question prompted Ms. Sollee to start "looking with different eyes" at new research on marriage, and her epiphany dawned in full. "I realized we had all been working on these flawed premises, like that marriage therapists should remain neutral toward couples in crisis, that marriage doesn't make any difference, and that children would be fine after divorce."

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And then the suffering: Diane Sollee suddenly realized she had been wrong-big time: Marriage does matter, and so does divorce.

Ms. Sollee isn't alone. From ivory towers to grassroots, American opinions about divorce are swinging slowly away from the "I'm outta here" ethos of the 1970s and '80s toward a fresh commitment to the institution of marriage. The attitude shift is both vertical and horizontal, extending from policy experts to regular folk, and also sweeping right to left across ideological fences.

The shift was three decades in coming. In the 1970s, Americans hailed the proliferation of no-fault divorce laws as the end of marital hypocrisy and the dawn of personal liberation. By the 1980s, a picture had emerged of the ugly socioeconomic impact of divorce on women, children, and the poor. But the picture was still fuzzy, and liberal academics obscured it further by churning out divorce-affirming research. In the 1990s, though, an increasing number of divorce studies revealed the cumulative effects on American society of the disintegration of marriage: Increased crime rates, drug use, and child abuse. Soaring numbers of never-married mothers. A decline in learning capacities and graduation rates among children of divorce. Plummeting household incomes. Weakened parent-child relationships. And growing diagnoses of childhood emotional, behavioral, and psychiatric problems. Great for the therapy and social-services industries. Bad for America.

Policy experts of all stripes took notice, and as the negative statistics swelled from trickle to deluge, a strange coalition formed. University of Denver marriage researcher Scott Stanley calls the new anti-divorce army a group of "disparate voices with a common concern."

"The reason we have a 'marriage movement' is that a substantial number of liberal, well-thinking people got very alarmed about where the country is going in terms of marriage and family," said Mr. Stanley, co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage, a well-regarded book on divorce prevention. "If it were just evangelicals sounding the alarm, it would be easy to ignore. But the research that's out there now cuts way across liberal and conservative lines, and has driven together a very interesting collection of people."

The group Ms. Sollee founded after leaving AAMFT is a good example. Ms. Sollee, who tags herself a "liberal feminist," in 1995 launched the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (CMFCE). With annual marriage conferences and a 7,000-person mailing list, the group promotes communication-centered marriage education as the antidote for divorce. "We're combining the moral and religious imperatives [for marriage] with an understanding of how to make marriage work," Ms. Sollee explained. "We can't change attitudes about divorce if we don't understand that marriage is not a game of chance. Once we show people that marriage is a skill-based relationship, that's what changes the attitude about divorce."

While both liberal and conservative church leaders are active in CMFCE, members also include liberal feminists, secular humanists, and conservatives, and what Ms. Sollee called "a whole spectrum of community leaders, divorce lawyers, and activists." For example, Theodora Ooms, a senior policy analyst at the liberal Center for Law and Social Policy, will present a keynote address at CMFCE's upcoming summer conference in Orlando. Ms. Ooms says her group, which has historically centered its efforts on "progressive" issues like poverty, is beginning to recognize that the goal of strengthening marriage meshes with its goal of helping the poor.


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