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."
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.
Another key cause of changing attitudes toward divorce has been Judith Wallerstein's groundbreaking longitudinal study of children of divorce. A family and child psychologist, Ms. Wallerstein began her research in 1971, just as no-fault divorce hit its stride in California. Back then, she too preached the status quo: If parents split without rancor, and arranged fair financial and co-parenting agreements, the kids would do all right. But her research changed her mind. She interviewed 131 children one year after their parents divorced, then at the two, five, 10, and 25-year marks. Her findings: Divorce damages children not only during the tumult of parental breakup, but also throughout adolescence. The damage crescendos in adulthood and, in many cases, twists the way those adult children approach relationships, marriage, sex, childbearing, even career.
"The delayed impact of divorce in adulthood is a revolutionary finding and a stunning surprise," said Ms. Wallerstein. "We thought that children of divorce would be able to work through issues related to divorce by the time they reached late adolescence or left home." Instead Ms. Wallerstein's study revealed that many adult children of divorce struggle mightily with internal expectations of failure, as well as lifelong fear of loss, change, conflict, betrayal, and loneliness.
Ms. Wallerstein emphasizes that she's not against divorce in highly dysfunctional marriages involving violence or severe emotional abuse. But she does believe her research provides new impetus for parents who care about their children's long-term economic and emotional futures to consider working things out. Last year, she released her findings about adult children of divorce in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Hyperion). The book has thus far sold 125,000 copies and sparked fresh concern among family court workers, matrimonial lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals about America's "divorce culture"-and the nascent revelation that divorce is not a short-term crisis. Even the chief justices of the 50 states invited Ms. Wallerstein to address them on the subject.
But what academics and policy makers are just learning, plain folk already know. Paul Kemp didn't need a book to tell him that his parents' divorce still affects him today-or that he'd prefer not to repeat their behavior. The 31-year-old San Diego salesman is engaged to be married in July to Valerie McCartney, 37, a national accounts manager for Pepsi. The couple dated for five years, at one point breaking up before patching up their relationship and committing to wed. Ms. McCartney, the child of an intact family, says she waited to marry "because I just didn't find the right person until now." Mr. Kemp, whose parents split when he was 8, grew up thinking he would probably marry young. Still, he told himself, if there were any possibility of divorce, he wouldn't marry. "When my parents divorced it was pretty rough on me. Knowing what I went through as a kid, it wasn't something I wanted for myself," he said.
Mr. Kemp doesn't identify with a particular religion, but he does believe there is a God. And since divorce "breaks a promise you make before God," he believes divorce is morally wrong. Both he and Ms. McCartney believe it's also too easy to get. "If it were harder to divorce, maybe people would think harder about getting married," Mr. Kemp said. The couple is attending premarital classes at Torrey Pines Christian Church, where they plan to tie the knot before 150 guests. Such marriage education classes are fast becoming a replacement for what young folks used to learn at their parents' knees: how to argue and live through it.
The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education emphasizes the training of lay trainers. Trainers then go into their communities and teach couples how to manage the simmering conflicts that can quietly kill a marriage. Scott Stanley's research on marriage and commitment has evolved into the PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) marriage education courses.
A new group of books-Borders bookstore displays them under a sign that reads "Eat, drink and stay married!"-also uphold marriage and discourage divorce. The Case for Marriage (Doubleday, 2000), by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, argues that traditional marriage is superior to cohabitation and other relationships that masquerade as its equal. Jeffry Larson's Should We Stay Together? (Jossey-Bass, 2000) helps couples troubleshoot their relationships before they say "I do."
But not everyone with an audience has hopped aboard the anti-divorce train. Soldiers of the far left still bang the tired drum that marriage oppresses women, and that self-actualization trumps commitment. When Ms. Wallerstein's study last year blew apart the notion that divorce is just an inconvenient pothole on the path to lasting happiness, feminist Katha Pollitt pounded the belief that couples in troubled but nonabusive marriages should stick it out for their children's sake: "America doesn't need more 'good enough' marriages full of depressed and bitter people," Ms. Pollitt wrote in a September column for Time. "Nor does it need more pundits blaming women for destroying 'the family' with what are, after all, reasonable demands for equality and self-development.... The 'good enough' divorce-why isn't that ever the cover story?"
Many marriage therapists have also been slow to change their opinions about divorce. According to Diane Sollee, many therapists still assume a "terribly flawed position of neutrality" when counseling couples, and do almost nothing to discourage divorce. Ms. Wallerstein agrees. "There isn't an effort by professionals in mental health to say, 'Hey, let's look at the implications of divorce ... let's look ahead,'" she explained. "Most therapists are willing to look at what you're getting out of, but not what you're getting into."
"Neutral" therapists have slowed marriage-building efforts in some states. For example, when Michigan tried to toughen no-fault divorce laws, AAMFT members provided "expert testimony" that helped keep divorce as easy to obtain as a dog license.
Other states also have launched divorce prevention initiatives. But according to the Heritage Foundation's Pat Fagan, bureaucratic foot-dragging has in some cases retarded real progress. In 1998, Florida Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles signed legislation (authored by Democrats) mandating marriage preparation courses for high-school students. But legal loopholes made it easy for schools to circumvent the requirement, so the initiative has borne little fruit. Meanwhile, Louisiana passed the first "covenant marriage" law. Couples in a covenant marriage who later seek divorce must agree to wait two years instead of the 180-day no-fault waiting period. But Louisiana citizens remain ill-informed about the law, Mr. Fagan reports, and gatekeepers like county clerks have failed to implement covenant marriage properly.
Marriage-building ventures are also underway in Utah, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Oklahoma and Wisconsin, for example, use surplus public assistance dollars (left unspent and unearmarked in the wake of welfare reform) to fund marriage-building programs, and to fund the establishment of Community Marriage Policies (CMP). CMPs use a coalition of church and civic leaders to prevent divorce through premarital education, mentoring, marital enrichment events, and faith-based reconciliation for troubled couples.
Sadly, churches may be the missing link in divorce prevention. Some divorce critics, including Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of a famous 1993 article, "Dan Quayle Was Right," say Christians have focused on issues like homosexuality, and not enough on strengthening marriage. In a 1997 editorial for First Things, Ms. Whitehead noted that while para-church groups like Focus on the Family have continued the work of marriage enrichment and preparation, "the retreat from preaching and teaching about marriage ... has been one of the more remarkable and unremarked-upon changes in American religious life." Many churches, she wrote, are simply afraid to upset the divorced faithful.
Scott Stanley of the University of Denver agrees, pointing out that the varied configurations of today's American family-from step-parents and 50/50 custody arrangements to Brady-style blended families and those completely estranged-make pastors cringe at preparing a Mother's Day sermon. But Mr. Stanley argues that churches should return to the forefront of marriage building and divorce prevention. Rather than shrinking from commenting on the divorce culture, or worse, conforming to it, he said, "churches ought to define the ideal, then be compassionate toward other [marital] situations."
The gradual cultural shift away from divorce may be starting to show up in statistics. From 1990 to 1998, the number of U.S. couples divorcing each year slid from 4.7 percent to 4.2 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The decline, coupled with the array of intellectual forces now aligned against divorce, has given birth to guarded optimism with respect to a renaissance for marriage. But cohabiting is still popular, and much of that decline may simply mean that fewer divorces occurred because fewer couples officially married. It's certainly not yet time to pronounce the divorce culture dead, or even badly wounded.
"The good news is that people 'get it' and there's a lot of potential for more [pro-marriage] action," Mr. Stanley said. "The bad news is we're still in a dive. There are more people trying to pull the plane up, but I'm not sure it can be done."