A recent study done by sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth on divorcing couples in Minnesota came out with a surprising result: a third of them were open to the idea of reconciling with their spouse, even when they were already deep in the divorce process. What’s more is that studies have shown that the “average” divorce is not between couples who bicker constantly and have high levels of conflicts for years before the divorce (although those still make up roughly 33% – 50% of divorces). The “average” divorce (50% – 66%) is between couples who have low-level conflicts and average happiness levels in their marriage; they usually occur around the 5th year of marriage. Couples who have been married for well over 5 years reported they ran into similar conflicts every couple of years but remained married and got past it. The implication here is that about of third of marriages on the road to divorce are actually salvageable, yet the couples involved simply don’t realize it.
While this might appear to be another cry for “preserving the sanctity of marriage,” the actual goal of helping salvage some marriages is to protect the children of those marriages. Some studies have shown that children whose parents have a history of high conflict and alienation tend to do better after the divorce. There was a lot of tension before the divorce, so having their parents separated reduces any face-to-face conflict their parents had and life at home with either parent will be less stressful for the children. However, children whose parents fall into the 33% of marriages that potentially could be reconciled do worse after the divorce. Because these marriages tend to have low-level conflict, the divorce comes as a complete surprise to the children and the process can be very upsetting for them since most divorces still take place in an adversarial manner. That’s why Amato and Booth’s results have led to the proposal of the Second Chances Act, which can be summarized here.
The proposal aims to have states require a minimum waiting period for divorce of at least 1 year, with an opt-out of the waiting period in instances of abuse. The purpose would be to provide divorcing couples time to explore the possibility of reconciling their marriage. One suggestion is to have couples attend parenting classes, which are currently required by 46 states before the divorce is finalized. These classes can help show parents the impact a potential divorce would have on their children, perhaps to help weed out couples who are unsure about divorce before they get in too deep.
I think this is an interesting idea, as filing for divorce can be a very stressful and emotional time (to say the least) in a person’s life and parents might find it difficult to consider their children’s feelings in addition to their own feelings, without a little push. I know someone who filed for a divorce this past summer, had been planning to do so for weeks, and did not tell her son what was going on until she moved out of the house. I’m not trying to blame her for doing the “wrong” thing. I’m just trying to point out how from the outside, this looks like a bad move. But obviously from the inside, she just did not know how to bring it up to her son because she was stressed out about the divorce itself. She and her husband rarely fought, but had drifted apart over the past few years; their son never saw it coming. I think if they had been forced to take a parenting class, they could have expressed their marital problems to their son, so he could have started coping with what would eventually happen.
Overall, the proposal seems a bit idealistic with some pitfalls. It is clearly aimed at the 33% of salvageable marriages, which makes me wonder how beneficial or even harmful this extra waiting period and process could be on the 66% of divorcing couples who are done with each other. Would this just antagonize them more? What about couples who don’t have children? Wouldn’t all this extra time and money spent on different procedures to help them reconcile be wasted since goal is more to help prevent harm to any children of the couple? On the other hand, there is merit in bringing the idea up for debate. I would have thought that maybe 10% of divorcing couples even thought about reconciling; there hadn’t been a study like Amato and Booth’s before. If there could be a more nation-wide finding on what percentage of divorcing couples actually would like to try reconciling, I think there could be some potential for this plan.