The film world's biggest stars and up-and-comers took the stage recently to receive their Academy Awards. And, when they did, the Oscar spotlight illuminated more than their film achievements. TV commentators critiqued their fashions, drooled over their diamonds and gossiped about their private lives – private lives that are a high-profile microcosm of the perilous state of marriage today.
Over the past few months we've read about the separations and impending divorces of tinsel town royalty like Tom Cruise, Kim Basinger and Meg Ryan. And while these entertainers have far different lifestyles than most of us, the alleged reasons for the break-up of their marriages – career demands, irreconcilable differences or just growing apart – could just as easily apply to couples in our world.
Divorce has become all too common. American Demographics magazine says the number of divorced Americans "is at an all-time high" – 20 million in 1998, up from 11 million in 1980. And the most frightening reality is that all too often marriages end because people just aren't "happy" or fulfilled. There is an underlying social attitude that encourages "freedom" and entices people to put self before responsibilities.
Singer Rod Stewart's ex, Rachel Hunter, recently explained to the New York Post why she left him after nine years of marriage, "Like lots of women who marry young and find themselves mothers by the time they're 25, I felt I no longer had an identity."
Soaring divorce rates should be of concern to all of us, because divorce not only causes suffering for those involved but also sends damaging ripples throughout our communities.
Compared to children of intact families, children of divorce are much more likely to drop out of school, become pregnant outside of marriage and commit crimes. But children aren't the only victims of divorce. It also adds to the ranks of the one group most plagued by poverty – single mothers – the majority of whom have an income of less than $15,000 a year.
Of course no one is suggesting we force people to stay in abusive marriages. In some circumstances a quick escape route is necessary for the protection of a spouse and children. But growing public opinion nationwide reveals a discussion on divorce reform is in order. A survey by USA Today found more than half of all adults think divorce should be harder to obtain, and three quarters of the children interviewed agree.
Unfortunately there are no quick fixes, but there are several strategies we can consider. First, couples contemplating marriage must understand the importance of the marriage covenant and the consequences of divorce. And since three-quarters of all marriages are blessed by religious institutions, such messages could be conveyed by churches, synagogues and other places of worship.
Second, the law should require that a couple that has filed for divorce complete a court-approved counseling program or seminar and, if minor children are involved, a parenting class prior to the entry of final judgment to dissolve the marriage. Many marriages can be strengthened through programs like Family Life Conferences and Marriage Encounter, or literally saved through programs like Retrouvaille.
Finally, there is evidence that no-fault divorce laws are partly responsible for the high divorce rate. No-fault divorce has created a bizarre situation where it's now easier to leave a spouse of 20 years than it is to break a car lease. Thus, reforming these laws may be in order.
When married couples with minor children seek to divorce, a closer look needs to be taken at the no-fault system to ensure the interests of the child are protected.
Some states have proposed no-fault divorce be replaced by the traditional fault system when children are involved or when one party objects to the divorce. Others have suggested a mandatory cooling-off period for counseling, reflection and mediation in hopes more marriages will survive. Whether these are the best solutions, few could answer. However, I do know when it comes to a sensitive, emotional issue like a broken home and divorce, most of the solutions will have to be found in the heart.
So don't let the glitz and the glamour of the Oscars fool you – divorce damages. Underneath even the most famous of facades, there is pain. As Nicole Kidman once said of her husband Tom Cruise, "I hope we are together when we are 80. I can't say we will be, but I will be so devastated if we are not." Sadly, for her and her two children, and for the millions of other families crushed by divorce, the devastation has already begun.
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