When Mike and Kelly Johnson married in 1999, they opted for a "covenant marriage," which under Louisiana law requires premarital counseling and further counseling before a couple can be granted a divorce. Even then, divorce is only allowed in specific circumstances.
To them, Mike Johnson said, it was "kind of a no-brainer."
"My wife and I both come from traditional Christian households," he said. "My own parents are divorced. As anyone who goes through that knows, that was a traumatic thing for our whole family. I'm a big proponent of marriage and fidelity and all the things that go with it, and I've seen firsthand the devastation [divorce] can cause."
His wife was pleased that he was ready for such a commitment. "To me, I thought, 'OK, if a man is willing to enter into a covenant marriage with me, then that really shows me that he wants it to be forever,' " she said. "I think that it would be a pretty big red flag if you asked your mate or your fiancé, 'Let's do a covenant marriage,' and they said they don't really want to do that."
Faced with a growing divorce rate and dealing with children whose parents had split up, in 1997 Louisiana became the first state to offer covenant marriage as an option to standard marriage and no-fault divorce. Since then, Arizona and Arkansas have followed suit. But so far, very few of the couples marrying in those states have selected a covenant agreement rather than standard marriage in the eyes of the state -- just 2 percent in Louisiana, which is higher than in the others.
Officials in all three states said people are still unaware they have the choice. To educate those in Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet, tonight are hosting "Arkansas Celebration of Marriage" as a way to mark Valentine's Day and promote covenant marriage. They will convert their marriage to a covenant marriage at the event in North Little Rock's Alltel Arena, and the goal is to have 1,000 other couples do the same after learning more about it.
'Marriage Heavy' vs. 'Marriage Light'
Kelly Johnson stressed that she does not question the commitment of those who have standard marriages, but she believes it is "marriage light."
"Covenant marriage is heavy marriage because it's harder to get out of. It's harder to get into because you have to go through a lot of counseling before you get married," she said, adding that the counseling before divorce will "hopefully mend a lot of marriages."
That was the goal of Katherine Spaht, a professor of law at Louisiana State University who was one of the authors of the Louisiana covenant marriage law. She said social scientists agree that children fare better when raised in a home with their biological parents, "so it behooves the state to do all it can to encourage a married couple with children to stay together."
Couples applying for marriage licenses can choose the option, and those already married can convert their marriages to the terms of the covenant marriage agreement.
Covenant marriages in Louisiana require premarital counseling so that couples understand the commitment they're making, and couples promise to seek more counseling if problems arise in the marriage. The only grounds for a no-fault divorce are living separately for two years. Otherwise, one spouse must cite an acceptable reason, including a felony conviction and imprisonment, adultery or physical or sexual abuse of a spouse or child.
The abuse provision was important as there were concerns that covenant marriage could trap people in domestic violence situations. Spaht said a divorce is provided immediately with evidence of abuse, and "it says to the rest of the world that this person crossed a line that is unacceptable."
In Arkansas, which modeled its law on Louisiana's, the option became law in 2001. Since then, fewer than 700 couples have selected a covenant marriage, said Chris Pyle, director of family policy for the governor.
"We knew going in it was only going to be successful to the extent that really the clergy in Arkansas had vision for it," Pyle said.
The situation is similar in Arizona, where "99.9 percent of people in the state" have not chosen covenant marriage, said Treasurer David Petersen, a former state senator who introduced the law that passed in 1998.
At the time, he said, he anticipated entire church congregations converting their marriages all at once. Instead, there have been fewer than 1,000 covenant marriages in Arizona.
"I'm well aware that falling in love and all the things surrounding that certainly outweigh any desire to get premarital counseling," Petersen said, adding that he hopes more clergy members and marriage counselors will promote it.
Does Covenant Marriage Work?
To find out more about those who choose covenant marriage, Steven Nock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, led a study of 350 couples in covenant marriages and 350 in standard marriages in Louisiana. They were interviewed within six months of their marriage, at the end of the second year and near the end of the fourth year.
"The whole idea of a covenant marriage appeals to a different type of person than a standard marriage does," Nock said. "They tend to be a little better educated. They tend to have little higher incomes and are more traditional in almost every way -- more religious, more politically conservative."
In addition, he said, wives tend to work outside the home more than in standard marriages -- the only deviation from being more traditional -- and they are less likely to have lived together before marriage and less likely to have children from a prior relationship, both of which are known to be associated with divorce.
"These couples have a fair amount going for them before they entered into marriage," Nock said. "We thought that would be the whole story -- and it wasn't."
After five years, the study found that couples in covenant marriages divorced 30 percent less than those in standard marriages. "They do have more stable marriages," he said, though researchers don't know "whether that has anything to do with the law or whether it's solely to do with everything they brought with them."
Though the couples in covenant marriages reported lower rates of violence, higher levels of communication and higher levels of satisfaction, Nock said, "most of that, we think, is independent of any choice that they made about marriage."
He said the mandatory counseling requirement before a divorce seems to have a "modest effect" on the marriages. "We think that actually has not had a huge effect, but some effect," Nock said. "It seems to stabilize marriages in times of trouble and account for the lower divorce rate. The longer wait had no real effect."
A Marital Problem 'Speed Bump'
Despite the small number of people choosing civil covenant marriages, the movement has taken off within Christian denominations across America. Groups dubbed Sunday "Covenant Marriage Sunday" and encouraged members to embrace the biblical tenets of their marriages.
That in itself is a victory, Spaht said. "This is the first form of any sort of divorce reform that has ever passed," she said. "It did ignite a conversation, so in that respect it's had a national effect and international effect … it sparked a religious covenant marriage movement sparked by this secular piece of legislation."
And Pyle said he is encouraged by inquiries about tonight's event, which have come from as far as New Hampshire, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi and Kansas. The evening will include speakers from various religious affiliations and a performance by CeCe Winans. "This event will challenge you to step up and commit to your spouse for a lifetime," Pyle said.
Pyle said the agreements are having a positive effect for those who chose covenant marriages. "We know from research that even very troubled marriages can be saved," he said. "And also we know that any time you can place a speed bump in the road between marital problems and divorce, you're going to save marriages."
For the Johnsons, the piece of paper means a deeper appreciation for their marriage and a confidence that it will last. "The fact that Mike wanted to enter into a covenant marriage with me made me feel very secure," his wife said.