Divorce rates in the state of Wyoming are among the highest in the U.S., and legislators there have come up with a strategy they hope will change that. If a proposed bill is passed, couples who plan to marry or divorce will have to attend three hours of counseling at their own expense. Couples who refuse counseling will have to wait a “cooling off” period of one year before being granted a license. Judges will have the right to waive the divorce counseling requirement in situations of domestic violence. The Catholic Church and some other religious institutions already insist that couples who plan to marry in the church receive premarital counseling. Yet while couples who didn’t want to go through such counseling have always had the possibility of opting for a civil ceremony, a marriage license is a requirement for any kind of ceremony. Is Wyoming’s proposed legislation an inspired response to a difficult social problem, or an unacceptable intrusion by the state into the private lives of its citizens?
Critics of the bill have been quick to argue that marriage is a personal decision, between two free individuals, and that “big government” has no place butting in. But this criticism won’t fly. Whether we like it or not, the state is already firmly involved in the institution of marriage. Marriage may be a personal matter, but it isn’t a private one. In choosing to marry (rather than co-habitate) individuals ask the state to recognize their union. Furthermore, many costs of a high divorce rate – in adult and child poverty, strain on the legal system, and higher bankruptcy rates – are borne by the state. The sponsor of the bill, Representative Ed Buchanan (Republican), says that it should help people understand the consequences of life-changing decisions. If internet family law forums are a valid indicator, many people contemplating marriage or divorce have very little understanding of their legal rights and obligations. Helping them to become more aware can only be a good thing.
Right now, there are very low barriers to marriage in Wyoming and its neighbouring states. Obtaining a marriage license will set you back $25 in Wyoming, $30 in Colorado, and a measly $15 in Nebraska. (For comparison, in Ontario a marriage license costs $130.) Making marriage and divorce more difficult might encourage some people to consider their decisions more thoughtfully, and this in turn might affect the divorce rate. Yet despite the good intentions of those who support the bill, I can see a few problems. First, there is nothing to stop couples in Wyoming from crossing the border to get married in another state. Second, I don’t know how strictly the counseling profession is regulated in Wyoming, and it isn’t clear what requirements marriage counselors would have to fulfill and what kind of expertise they would be expected to have. For example, would counseling by members of the clergy be acceptable? The issue of counselors’ training and expertise is all the more pressing when you consider that the issue of whether marriage counseling works at all is controversial. (Click here for an article from the New York Times Magazine that surveys some of the evidence for and against the effectiveness of couples counseling.)
If the bill passes, I hope that someone will do follow-up research. How many couples who receive mandatory counseling will revisit their decisions to either marry or divorce? Will the change have any effect on Wyoming’s divorce or marriage rate? Perhaps the idea will catch on, and mandatory counseling requirement for civil marriage will one day come to be seen as unremarkable as the requirement to undergo a blood test once was.