Denver Post

To rescue marriage, address divorce

By Al Knight
Denver Post Columnist

July 31, 2002

Wednesday, July 31, 2002 - The federal government has recently claimed an interest in encouraging marriage on the grounds that children who are raised in a two-parent home seem to do better emotionally, intellectually and socially than those who are not.

There are a number of reasons, however, why marriage won't become more attractive until the rules and regulations pertaining to divorce are revised. The administration will have little success with one until it properly considers the other.

The White House has chosen to emphasize the advantages of marriage in a kind of splendid isolation. In its proposal to reauthorize and strengthen the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the Bush administration points out that children reared in a two-parent family are more likely to complete high school and are less likely to be poor, commit crimes or have mental health problems.

That may be completely true, but if the benefits for both parents and children are so obvious, why aren't men and women across America rushing to the altar?

The reason, which is is rarely cited either by the government or anyone else, is that being married and having children has become risky business. Although the rate at which people marry is at or near historic lows, the divorce rate is unchanged, hovering around 50 percent. Half of all first marriages end in divorce. The rate for second and third marriages is higher.

These facts are impossible to hide and it is thus very likely that many young men now considering marriage and raising a family will opt not to do so because they instinctively recognize that the risks outweigh the benefits.

Family courts across the country have contributed mightily to reinforcing the fears that surround marriage and child rearing. Aided by state laws that require decisions to be based on the so-called best interests of the child" standard, judges routinely award custody of children to the divorcing mother. In many states, the breakup of marriages with children means that mothers are about nine times as likely as fathers to be awarded primary custody. For most men, divorce simply means a long-term child-support obligation and limited opportunities for seeing their children.

It's no wonder, then, that men may be avoiding marriage.

A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Glenn Sacks and Dianne Thompson speculated that there is, in fact, an ongoing marriage strike. Men, they said, are behaving like Peter Pan. They refuse to commit, refuse to settle down and refuse to grow up." The authors of this piece quote a 31-year-old man who said, Why should I get married and have kids when I could lose those kids and most of what I've worked for at a moment's notice? I've seen it happen to many of my friends. I know guys who came home one day to an empty house or apartment, wife gone, kids gone. They never saw it coming. Some of them were never able to see their kids regularly again."

What has been proposed in a number of states, including Colorado, is a law that would establish a presumption where, when a marriage with children breaks up, that the parents should share the resulting responsibilities equally. Other reforms have included lawsuits. One such lawsuit in Colorado directly challenges the best interests of the child" standard on equal-protection grounds because the standard so often favors the mother.

Meanwhile, a number of states have taken smaller steps to address a perceived inequity in the enforcement of the divorce laws. In Montana, for example, it is no longer possible for a judge in a custody action to simply declare custody on the basis of the "best interests of the child." He or she must make specific findings of fact.

These steps, by themselves, won't be enough to alter the culture or make marriage more attractive. What would help is for federal and state officials to take notice of the fact that one of the reasons men are running from marriage is because they are also running from the legal beating they will take if they marry, have children and later divorce.

Al Knight ( ) is a member of the Denver Post editorial board. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

Copyright 2002 The Denver Post.