Former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Sears (on the short list for Obama appointments to the Supreme Court) and family relations scholar Professor William Doherty have teamed up to produce with 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 was 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.
Now, some might ask, “Unnecessary divorce? What’s that?”
The genesis of the Second Chances Act was Minnesota Judge Bruce Peterson’s observation that at least some of the people he was seeing in his court looked like they needed a “rest stop” on the “divorce superhighway.” “When Judge Peterson looked at his own court system, widely acknowledged as a progressive one,” Sears and Doherty write, “he saw attempts to meet nearly every need of divorcing couples—legal and financial assistance, protection orders, parenting education, and more—except for reconciliation.”
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 even asked how many people filing for divorce would be interested in reconciliation.
So Doherty teamed up with colleagues to do some groundbreaking and 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.” In about 10 percent of divorces, both the husband and the wife are interested in reconciliation (likely unbeknownst to either of them).
“This finding is stunning,” Sears and Doherty point out. “It tells us that we have a major new opportunity to help millions of American families. . . . 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 do we know that a divorce is unnecessary? Let’s put it this way: If a divorce can be prevented by creating a one-year waiting period and giving both spouses information on reconciliation, then it certainly is an unnecessary divorce. And according to recent studies, there are many divorces that could have been prevented in just this way.
In a well-controlled study, economist Leora Friedberg found that states with longer waiting periods have had smaller increases in divorce rates than states that have shorter or no separation requirements. Indeed, a 2009 study on Western Europe by Thorsten Kneip and Gerrit Bauer, “Does Unilateral Divorce Raise the Divorce Rate,” found that 80 percent of the increase in divorce rates between 1970 and 1990 could be attributed to eliminating or shortening waiting periods.
The scientific case for the impact of waiting periods in reducing divorce is not bullet-proof, these scholars acknowledge. But Doherty and Sears suggest that 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.
At the root of this discussion, however, is the larger question: Why should we try to reduce unnecessary divorce at all?
First, 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. Research shows that divorced fathers and mothers are less likely to have high-quality relationships with their children. Children with divorced or unmarried parents are more likely to be poor, while married couples on average build more wealth than those who are not married, even accounting for the observation that well-off people are more likely to get married. Parental divorce or failure to marry appears to increase children’s risk of failure in school. Such children are less likely to finish high school, complete college, or attain high-status jobs. Infant mortality is higher among children whose parents do not get or stay married, and such children on average have poorer physical health compared to their peers with married parents. Teens from divorced families are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, get in trouble with the law, and experience a teen pregnancy. Numerous studies also document that children living in homes with unrelated men are at much higher risk of childhood physical or sexual abuse.
These studies generally adjust for parental education and income, which means that the negative effects cannot be explained by these demographic factors.
Second, the majority of people who divorce do not go on to make a happier marriage. If they re-marry, they re-divorce, putting themselves (and their kids) on a relationship merry-go-round.
Third, divorce costs taxpayers money. A 2008 study by economist Ben Scafidi, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing,” estimated that family fragmentation costs the taxpayers at least $112 billion each and every year
What’s the payoff for America’s children?
Doherty and Sears say that rolling family fragmentation back to the levels of 1980 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 taking.