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From the Detroit News: Another View


Michael J. McManus

LANSING - "It is easier to divorce my wife of 26 years than to fire someone I hired one week ago. The person I hire has more legal clout to sue me than my wife of 26 years. That's wrong."

Randall Hekman, 48, president of the Michigan Family Forum and a former judge, was explaining to religious leaders in August why he is backing a nationally unprecedented bill to reform Michigan's "no fault" divorce law that allows one person to unilaterally end a marriage - even if one's spouse wants to reconcile.

When I married in 1965, I could divorce my wife, but I would have to prove she was at fault for the marital breakdown due to adultery, chronic alcoholism, etc. If I was the adulterer, I had no grounds for divorce. True, I could make my wife so unhappy she'd grant the divorce, but she'd have leverage to demand custody of kids, alimony as well as child support and possession of the house.

No-fault turned that upside down. Since no one's fault must be proved, I could demand a divorce and sale of our family home. I'd get cut 50 percent of its value. So my family subsidizes my affair!

Not surprisingly, no-fault pushed up divorce rates in 45 of 50 states - by 36 percent in Michigan, reports a recent study in the Journal of Marriage and the Family by Joseph Rodgers and others.

State Rep. Jessie Dalman, married 38 years, looked around her little town of Holland, saw a lot of divorce among friends and family members - many acting on the passion of the moment - and felt "somehow we've got to get people to reconsider these actions."

Also she saw a connection between soaring juvenile crime and the breakup of families. Indeed, juvenile crime has jumped sixfold since 1960 while the number of teen-agers has remained stable. Teen suicide has tripled as divorces have tripled.

Therefore her bill (HB 4432) fashions two major reforms. If a couple has no children and both want it, they could get a no-fault divorce. "But if one party does not want a divorce, then the person who wants to leave has to prove the partner was at fault," she says.

"The person who wants reconciliation will have a stronger bargaining chip, which is very important. If the marriage can't be saved, he/she will have a stronger voice in division of assets.

"If children are involved, the person who wants out would have to meet the same fault standard. In addition, they have to show that the divorce is in the best interest of the children."

Of course, divorce is almost never in the best interest of the children. Judith Wallerstein followed 60 families of divorce over 15 years before writing in her classic book, Second Chances, that "Children of all ages feel intensely rejected when their parents divorce." Kids reason: "He left Mom. He doesn't care about me."

She was surprised to learn that while girls initially adjust to divorce better than boys, "a sleeper effect" hits 10 years later making it difficult for them to bond with a man. Half of the men aged 19 to 29 also were unhappy, lonely and had few lasting relationships with women. Both sexes often cohabit.

Thirty-three studies of those who experienced divorce as children found they suffer from low self-image, lower wages, higher divorce. Adults don't do well either. Wallerstein found only a tenth of the former couples had both husbands and wives happier after a decade. In a quarter of couples, both were worse off. Of the final two thirds, one was still in agony, while a partner was happy. But for how long? Most remarry, but 60 percent undergo a second divorce.

So far Rep. Dalman's colleagues in the Legislature have paid her little attention, preferring to work on crime or welfare bills, failing to see that she's working on the root cause of both.

Hekman has been asked, "Why should I stay in a bad marriage?"

Consider Mark and Betty S....... who testified before Dalman. In 1986, he wanted a no-fault divorce because he was having an affair. She got him to attend a Retrouvaille retreat. A lead couple told how adultery nearly killed their marriage. Mark was deeply moved.

"I was using no-fault to abandon my responsibility to my family," he now admits.

They rebuilt their marriage and have told their story to 597 estranged couples on Retrouvaille weekends. A fifth were separated/divorced, yet 80 percent saved their marriage.

Michael J. McManus is syndicate columnist in Bethesda, Md., and the author of Marriage Savers (Zondervan).




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