Staying Hitched Ozark Style


Amy Taylor woke up one morning, and it dawned on her that she didn't have to stay in an unfulfilling marriage. Her husband of five years had not given her the emotional, and at times financial, support she needed. Ms. Taylor knew that she needed something more.

"There's more to a marriage than sleeping in the same bed, living in the same house, and sharing a checking account," Taylor says in a deep Southern twang. "Women have options. We have jobs and can get out of a bad relationship and do things for ourselves now."

In northwest Arkansas, where Taylor lives, more and more women are beginning to agree with her.

Once known as "hillbilly country," where residents ran either farms or moonshine, this region has become one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States. But along with industries like Tyson chicken and Wal-Mart, a wave of divorces has also come to the rumpled hills of the Ozarks. Indeed, the state's northwest corner has a divorce rate 63 percent higher than the national average - and the state's rate is second only to Nevada's. So now, concerned by the emerging trend, a group of ministers from this Bible belt state has teamed up to seek solutions.

"It's appalling," says Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, of the divorce rate. "We really need to look at the cause and then do something about it," says Governor Huckabee.

Ministers and professors agree. And women like Taylor enlighten educators like William Bailey, an associate professor of family studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and also a Methodist minister. Arkansas, which also ranks 49th in women obtaining a college education, is just catching up to the 1970s divorce explosion.

"Arkansas has never been a trend-setting state," Dr. Bailey explains. "For the first time, more women are getting an education, finding a job, and supporting their kids or themselves. If a relationship isn't fulfilling, women are realizing they can get out and not have to depend on a man. The stigma of divorce is gone."

Religious leaders respond

Many pastors and priests in northwest Arkansas want the stigma to return. In December, 117 religious leaders in Benton and Washington Counties signed the Harvey and Bernice Jones Center for Families' church-based Community Marriage Policy with hopes of preventing future marriages from collapsing.

Religious leaders who signed the policy agree to make couples, who wish to marry in their churches wait six months. During this time, an inventory of the couple's strengths and weakness is evaluated. An older couple who has learned the secrets of a successful marriage mentors the younger one, and lessons in communication and conflict resolution are given.

"This policy took hold in Modesto, Calif., 10 years ago, and the divorce rate has gone down 40 percent," Glen Jones, the Harvey and Bernice Jones Center's director of family development, said.

"Pastors marry 75 percent of the people in Arkansas. They can make people jump through hoops if they want to get married. For this policy to really work, they will have to get behind it and persuade people to care more about the marriage than the wedding," he says.

Marriage Savers

Mike McManus operates Marriage Savers, an organization in Maryland that trains people to improve good marriages and salvage bad ones. He has followed the creation of policies like the one in northwest Arkansas, which is more comprehensive than most, for 10 years. Mr. McManus has a theory on the high rate of divorce in Arkansas and the South in general.

"The South is primarily Southern Baptist. Arkansas is 46 percent Southern Baptist.

Unlike the Catholics, who have rigid codes about marriage, the Baptists have beliefs that say live abundantly. If a husband isn't living abundantly with his wife, he says he has to get a divorce because the Bible says he can."

Generous divorce laws

Religion leaders may create policies to halt bad couplings from legally uniting, and policies may educate couples about marriage. Yet, when a good marriage turns bad in Arkansas, laws make it quite simple to become single once again. While Nevada is known for its easy divorce laws - allowing a divorce after six weeks of residency - Arkansas laws are even more generous.

A husband citing an "indignity," such as his wife burning toast every morning, could be footloose and free in a quick 90 days. He need only to reside in Arkansas for 60 days before filing for divorce. If the wife doesn't contest, the husband could be single in another 30 days. While concrete grounds do exist for divorce - adultery, impotence, abandonment for a year, cruel and inhuman treatment - these seldom come into play because judges don't ask, they grant.

"I see it every day," says Ginger Atkinson, the grand dame of divorce attorneys in Little Rock. "It's not a pleasant business. People forget that marriage is a contract and shouldn't be broken. Perhaps, it has become too easy to break that contract or maybe these preachers are right about premarital counseling."

Taylor and her husband didn't have any premarital counseling before they got married. If they had, she says, they probably wouldn't have made it down the aisle. Both were immature, and neither realized the complexities that come with marriage.

"Policies like the one we have in northwest Arkansas work," Jones says. "Divorce will never be gone from society, but we can try and stop some of it. I think in time we will. If we don't, we could see a breakdown of civilization."

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