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An 'I do' that lasts

America's growing anti-divorce movement is spawning rallies, stricter

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 1999


Five years ago, Michael and Cheri Siebler faced a series of crises that nearly ended their six-year marriage - the death of a child, infidelity, and the loss of a business, all within a year.

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"Things were really rocky," says Mrs. Siebler, of Santee, Calif. So rocky, in fact, that a concerned friend gave the couple tickets to a weekend marriage seminar sponsored by FamilyLife, a ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ.

The event marked the beginning of the Sieblers' renewed commitment to their marriage.

"If we had not attended, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be together today," Siebler says.

June 19, they were among 3,500 couples who gathered in San Diego for another conference designed to strengthen marriages, a day-long rally called "I Still Do." Part educational, part spiritual, the event is modeled after men's rallies held by Promise Keepers, an evangelical men's group. Sponsors include Promise Keepers, Focus on the Family, the Christian Men's Network, and the Moody Bible Institute.

Other arena rallies will take place June 26 in San Jose, Calif., July 10 in Washington, and Oct. 23 in Houston. Couples who attend are asked to sign a pledge vowing fidelity and unwavering love.

"Men have come together in stadiums, women have been coming together in sports arenas," says Beau Glenn, project leader of the events. "Now it's time to share the experience."

More than a million American marriages a year end in divorce. Now, after 30 years of permissive attitudes and no-fault divorce laws, a grass-roots anti-divorce movement is quietly gaining strength. Efforts range from the covenant marriage movement, which seeks to make divorce harder to get, to the community marriage movement, which trains clergy of many faiths to strengthen marriages in their congregations.

Louisiana and Arizona have also passed laws allowing couples to choose covenant marriage vows. Those who do - so far only a tiny percentage - can divorce only after a mutually agreed-upon two-year separation or on grounds such as adultery, abuse, or abandonment.

Last month, 24 conservative Christian groups launched the Covenant Marriage Movement, aimed at promoting commitment to marriage and family. "We've got to eliminate the 'D' word - divorce- from our vocabulary and replace it with the 'C' words - commitment and covenant," says Dennis Rainey, executive director of FamilyLife. "There has to be something wrong with a culture where it's easier to get out of a marriage than it is to get out of a used-car contract."

Divorce, Mr. Rainey adds, "is like an emotional earthquake with major aftershocks that ripple through not just one generation but three or four generations into the future."

But other family specialists counter that simply making divorce harder will not solve marital problems.

"What I'm concerned about is this either-or mentality, that if we help marriage we have to penalize divorce," says Constance Ahrons, author of "The Good Divorce." "We can help people have better marriages and we can help people have better divorces. They are not contradictory."

Dr. Ahrons, a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families in Berkeley, Calif., says that efforts to return to a fault-based divorce system will not help people stay married. Instead, she explains, "It will increase litigation again, and litigation hurts children."

Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in Washington, calls the arena events "a step in the right direction." She adds, "It reminds me of a football team having a really big rally and saying they're going to win one for the Gipper. It's great to say you're going to do it for love, for each other, for your children. But we also have to equip couples with communication skills so they have a fighting chance to keep their determination."

Mary Jo Czaplewski, executive director of the National Council on Family Relations in Minneapolis, agrees. "That kind of thing has its place for certain people, but it's certainly not for everybody," she says. "The message is, 'Stay there,' but it's not how to develop equality while you're there."