Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and his wife Janet renewed their marriage vows the other day under Arkansas’ more strict “covenant marriage” law, under which, according to this news story, “couples getting a covenant marriage agree to seek counseling before they wed and before they seek a divorce. A covenant marriage also requires a two-year wait before a divorce becomes final, except in cases of adultery, abuse or imprisonment for a felony.” Huckabee is upgrading (or downgrading, depending on your point of view) his marriage into covenant status in part to draw attention to the concept of covenant marriage, which, to put it lightly, has not been a hit, even in Arkansas: just over two thirds of one percent of Arkansas marriages have been covenant marriages since the new variation of marriage was enacted into law in 2001.
Simple reason for that: As a concept, it’s pretty damn insulting. “Covenant Marriage” implicitly suggests that people won’t stay married unless they subject themselves to onerous governmental restrictions on their personal freedoms; basically, it’s the state telling you that it expects you to get a divorce at some point, unless it makes it too annoying for you to get a divorce to make it worth your while. The State of Arkansas is banking on sloth, apathy and state bureaucracy to keep a bunch of bad marriages together, as if bad marriages are really better than divorce.
On the flip side, going for the covenant marriage seems to suggest that you feel you need that government intervention to make up for your own lack of marital will. And that’s not really a positive attitude to have going into a marriage, is it? Here’s a tip: If you feel you’re going to need a covenant marriage in order to keep your marriage together, you might want to re-think the whole “getting married” concept in the first place. If you really want to bind your entire life to another person, it’s going to be immaterial whether or not it’s easy to get a divorce. It’s like frosting on a cat.
Most people like to think they’re getting married for life; most people don’t want the government poking its nose into their personal business. Add it up, and it’s no wonder covenant marriage is a big fat flop. I mean, it’s nice Huckabee’s renewing his vows to his wife — I applaud that. I think it’s mildly distasteful that as he did it, he tried to sell a brand of marriage that both implicitly demeans the marriages of the overwhelming majority of Arkansans and runs counter to the presumed conservative principles of a smaller, less invasive government. But isn’t that modern conservatism for you.
You know, I got married in California, where getting a divorce is only slightly more difficult than saying “I divorce you!” three times in sequence, and where, of course, all those horrible liberal Hollywood types with their terrible loose morals live. And yet, a married couple in California is rather less likely to get a divorce than a couple from Arkansas. The state that has the lowest incidence of divorce in the US is Massachusetts, which as we all know is so flamingly liberal that they even let the gay people get married, to other gay people, even. What do California and Massachusetts know that Arkansas does not? Whatever it is, it’s got nothing to do with covenant marriage.
If I wanted, I could walk away from my marriage. I could just get up, go, wait an appropriate time and whoomp, it’s done: No-fault all the way. My wife, if she so choose, could do the same thing. And yet we don’t — and we keep not walking away from our marriage every day of our marriage, because that’s not what we want. We don’t want that for the obvious reasons that we love each other and we love our life together, but also because we both understand that marriage is supposed to be work, and that a marriage is a commitment to be renewed on a constant and continuing basis. We work on that, and it’s good work. You could make divorce a 30-second act, as simple as clicking a button on a Web site, and I still wouldn’t divorce Krissy, nor (I rather deeply suspect) she me. The strength of our marriage — the strength of any marriage, I’d say — is entirely unrelated to how easy it is to end it.
“There is a crisis in America,” Huckabee told people at the rally that included his covenant marriage. “That crisis is divorce. It is easier to get out of a marriage than (to get out of a) contract to buy a used car.” Well, yes. It’s also easier to get married than to get a contract to buy a used car, too, so long as you’re willing to marry someone of the opposite sex (and not even that in one commonwealth). But you notice Huckabee doesn’t make mention of that. The crisis is not divorce, the crisis is marrying poorly: Marrying without expectation of what being married requires from both members of a couple, marrying without the appreciation of the consequences, marrying because it’s what’s expected rather than what’s best for either (or both) the people in the couple. The only good thing about Arkansas’ covenant marriage law is it requires couples counseling before the wedding; should covenant marriages actually have a lower incidence of divorce, I’d imagine you’d find the pre-wedding counseling was the key.
Making sure people who are getting married are ready to be married — and married to each other: That’s what’s going to bring down your divorce rate. Do that well enough, you won’t have to try to sell the rather insane idea that making it harder to divorce is going “save” a couple’s marriage. It won’t; it’ll just make them suffer longer for no good reason at all. Making it harder to get divorced is like making it harder to open a fire escape: By the time people get to the point of using it, the damage is already done. Time to let them out.