Lopez: Is cohabitation a bad thing for the common and individual good?
Donovan: I don’t think you can say that cohabitation always results in a failed relationship, but when it doesn’t, it is probably because the couple had what it took to make a marriage work under any conditions. The clergy I’ve talked to who decline to perform marriage ceremonies for cohabiting couples unless they first separate and “reset” their relationship clocks are asking fundamental questions and doing the couple a favor: How will you respond when things aren’t going exactly as you would like? Can you sacrifice for this person — do you have the patience required to spend a lifetime with another person?
But, yes, cohabitation has weakened our perception that marriage itself is not a name for a relationship but a kind of glue — a seal or sacrament — that permeates and makes the relationship possible. Cohabiting has lowered our reverence for sex, marriage, and the highest expression of love, which is the child. What we revere less, we paradoxically understand less.
How does divorce play into all of this?
Donovan: New York became the last of the 50 states to make divorce a no-fault affair, when it acted last summer. Easy divorce is a misnomer, but no-fault so empowers the party desiring to leave the marriage that it’s hard for the culture to see any nobility in a spouse struggling to preserve the union. If you’ve seen such a portrayal in a book or film lately, I would like to know about it.
Statistically, the tenfold rise in U.S. cohabitation since the 1960s is probably partly responsible for the fact that divorce rates are down substantially from their peak. But that doesn’t make trial marriage a good thing; as someone wisely pointed out, cohabitation breakdowns are not trial breakdowns. They’re real, with millions of children affected.
Lopez: If we were to reform divorce laws, would we be hurting people who are in truly bad situations?
Donovan: Practically, divorce reform will have to proceed, and it is proceeding, in ways that minimize that concern. No reform should put any spouse or former spouse at risk in a situation where there is domestic violence, addiction, or some other form of criminality. We’ve reached the bottom of the reform parabola with New York’s no-fault law, and the best reform ideas are working with the subset of couples who really will respond to signals from the law and the culture that reconciliation is possible and worthwhile.
Several states are considering ideas to use waiting periods before a divorce petition is even filed. First, the spouse seeking the divorce would have to notify the other spouse of an intention to divorce. During the waiting period, they attend a mandatory counseling course that provides them with the best information about the impact of a decision to end the marriage. The evidence is there that some couples can and will reconcile under these circumstances.
Lopez: Is anyone seriously talking about reforming divorce law?
Donovan: It’s sporadic, but there are some extraordinary and not easily classified scholars and policy experts at work on these issues. For many of them, the work on children of divorce, now grown, has sparked a recognition that the story of marriage law in the United States is not over. To name a few of these scholars and writers would be to omit too many who have made excellent contributions, but much of the work being done can be found at the website for the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. Then there are a few political leaders, like Kansas governor Sam Brownback, who see these issues from a holistic perspective and have made them a touchstone of their life in office. Their passion and wisdom can have outsized impact.