South scrambles to improve state of unions

Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove announced last week he was divorcing after 24 years of marriage.

"We have agreed to disagree on those issues, set them aside, come together with an amicable agreement to provide for two outstanding, wonderful children," the governor said at a news conference. "Both of us agree fault is not an issue."

Mr. Musgrove's marital troubles, though certainly deeply personal, are also reflective of a wider problem among both his constituency and his region: Many parts of the South have divorce rates that are 50 percent above the national average of 43 percent.

That statistic, though hardly new, has prompted a growing and wide-ranging crusade by political and religious leaders to repair tears in the bonds of matrimony. These efforts to strengthen marriage have proved as varied and multilayered as the reasons that lead a couple to split up.

* In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, if a couple presents evidence that they have completed a pre-marriage education course within a year before their application, their marriage license fee is only $2.

* Florida requires high-school students to study relationship skills. The state's fatherhood commission recommended last week that counties establish policies to make it harder for couples to wed without marriage courses or counseling.

* At a Lutheran church in Overland Park, Kan., clergy offer to pay the rent for a cohabiting partner who agrees to move out. The program aims to get couples to focus more on marriage and less on living together.

"The bottom line is simple," says Saga Stevin, author of "The Golden Triangle: A Simple Philosophy on Dating and Relationships." "You can pay a fortune to figure it all out, but a marriage lasts based on a respect and honor. Very simple concept, hard to get across."

But states and religious organizations are determined to spread just that message - although they have their work cut out for them. According to the US Census Bureau, four of the five states with the highest resident divorce rates in the country are in the Deep South.

The reasons for Dixie's high divorce rate are multitiered and complicated, say marriage experts.

Fifty years ago, a need for financial security was one of the things that helped keep a couple together, especially in Southern textile towns. Now, sociologists say, tension and arguments about financial problems are a leading cause of divorce. In 1999, 13.1 percent of Southerners lived below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.

Marrying too young?

Couples also just marry young in Dixie. Nearly half of marriages in which the bride is 18 years old or younger end in separation or divorce within 10 years, the National Center for Health Statistics reported in May. For brides 25 and older, the divorce rate drops to one-quarter.

"People are often young when they marry," says Ms. Stevin. "They go into marriage with unrealistic expectations and expecting someone else to make them happy. They aren't secure [in] who they are. Who can know what they want when they are 20?"

Certainly, the Bible Belt is a land that promotes marriage at a young age. Women are often called old maids if they are still single in their mid-20s, and men are expected to be settled down with a wife by the same age. Teens belonging to conservative Christian religions can also face additional pressure from the pulpit to marry early.

Divorce among the devout

At the Southern Baptist convention in New Orleans earlier this month, the main focus was on ways to preserve marriage among members.

The convention of America's largest Protestant denomination passed a resolution promoting "covenant marriages," in which couples promise to undergo counseling before getting a divorce. It also vowed to create a blueprint to help pastors prevent divorce.

Politicians in a number of Southern states have lambasted the high divorce rate, blaming it for the South's myriad social ills. In Oklahoma, Gov. Frank Keating called divorce a main cause of poverty in his state. He put $10 million in federal welfare money toward a much-publicized campaign to cut the divorce rate by one-third in 10 years.

Legislators in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Arizona have passed covenant-marriage acts - although Oklahoma has scuttled a similar proposal.

In 1999, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declared a "state of marital emergency," and encouraged every community to establish a marriage policy.

Such voluntary policies are organized by local clergy, who agree to marry only couples who have gone through counseling and to establish marriage mentors within their congregations. Modesto, Calif., the first community to implement such a policy, has seen its divorce rate drop by nearly 40 percent over 10 years.

The reason for states stepping into what used to be considered a private problem is simple, some experts say.

"The cost in rising family break-ups, multigenerational poverty, high school drop-out rates, and increasing irresponsibility in young and old is more than government - or even the broader society - has been able to bear," says Rod Martin, chief development officer for The Independent Institute, a national think tank.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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