What is Covenant Marriage?
Covenant Marriage is a form of marriage characterized by a set of specific agreements; marriage is a lifetime contract, grounds for divorce are limited and agreed upon in advance, and premarital and couples counseling are also essential.
These Marriages were first developed by the Louisiana legislature in 1997 to encourage couples to go through couples therapy before filing for divorce. Arkansas and Arizona followed shortly afterward.
These couples intend for their marriage to be a lifelong commitment. They agree to premarital counseling, and couples therapy as needed. They also agree to restrict the causes of action for separation and divorce.
What is the Difference Between a Traditional Marriage and a Covenant Marriage?
Here is how Louisiana manages the special case of Covenant Marriage:
Covenant Marriage laws offer couples a choice, at time of marriage or later, to limit the grounds for divorce in their marriage.
… In a traditional or “contract” marriage, a couple need only purchase a marriage license, obtain two witnesses, and have a state-licensed agent to perform the ceremony.
Couples who choose to enter into a Covenant Marriage agree to be bound by two significant provisions in the process of obtaining a divorce or separation. These stipulations are unique to a Covenant Marriage and do not apply to non-covenant couples marrying in Louisiana:
- The couple legally agrees to seek marital counseling if problems develop during the marriage; and
- The couple can pursue a divorce or legal separation for only limited reasons defined in the Covenant Marriage Agreement.
A Covenant Marriage Starts with a Declaration of Intent
In order to enter into a Covenant Marriage, the couple must sign a Declaration of Intent that provides:
- A marriage agreement to live together as husband and wife forever.
- The parties have chosen each other carefully and disclosed to each other “everything which could adversely affect” the decision to marry.
- The parties have received premarital counseling.
- A commitment that if the parties experience marital difficulties they agree to make all reasonable efforts to preserve their marriage, including marital counseling.
- The couple also must obtain premarital counseling from a priest, minister, rabbi or similar clergyman of any religious sect, or from a professional marriage counselor.
Affidavit and Attestation
After discussing the meaning of marriage with the counselor, the couple also must sign the Affidavit and Attestation form.
This form is comprised of an attestation by the counselor with a notarized affidavit confirming that the counselor has discussed with them:
- The profound implications of a Covenant Marriage.
- That the commitment to the marriage is for life.
- The obligation of the couple to seek marital counseling if problems arise in their marriage.
- That they have received the informational pamphlet published by the Attorney General entitled “Covenant Marriage Act.”
The Declaration of Intent (comprised of the Recitation and the Affidavit with Attestation) must be presented to the official who issues the marriage license, along with the couple’s application for a marriage license.
Legal Separation in a Covenant Marriage
In order to obtain a legal separation (which is not a divorce and therefore does not end the marriage), a party to a covenant marriage must first obtain counseling and then must prove either:
- Adultery by the other spouse
- Commission of a felony by the other spouse and a sentence of imprisonment at hard labor or death
- Physical or sexual abuse of the spouse or of a child of either spouse
- The spouses have lived separate and apart for two years or
- Habitual intemperance (for example, alcohol or drug abuse), cruel treatment, or severe ill-treatment by the other spouse.
Divorce in a Covenant Marriage
A Covenant Marriage makes divorce more difficult as well. One may petition for divorce only after receiving counseling and based upon adultery by the other spouse, the conviction of a felony by the other spouse and his imprisonment at hard labor or death, or by proof that the spouses have lived separate and apart for six months before or after filing for divorce.
Similar to the criteria for legal separation, one (or more) of the following conditions must be present:
- Adultery by the other spouse
- Commission of a felony by the other spouse and sentence of imprisonment at hard labor or death
- Abandonment by the other spouse for one year
- Physical or sexual abuse of the spouse or of a child of either spouse
- The spouses have lived separate and apart for two years, or the spouses are judicially or legally separated and have lived separate and apart since the legal separation for (a) one year and six months if there is a minor child or children of the marriage; (b) one year if the separation was granted for abuse of a child of either spouse; or (c) one year in all other cases.
Covenant Marriage is an Option for Married Couples As Well…
Couples who are presently married may execute a Declaration of Intent to legally re-designate their marriage a Covenant Marriage. They must sign a Recitation and Affidavit with Attestation similar to those above, after receiving counseling.
The counselor must attest to the counseling. The intent to designate a marriage as a Covenant Marriage must be filed with the official who issued the couple’s marriage license and with whom their marriage certificate is filed.
If the couple was married outside of Louisiana, a copy of their marriage certificate, with the Declaration of Intent shall be filed with the officer who issues marriage licenses in the parish of the couple’s home.
What is the Purpose of Covenant Marriage?
Covenant Marriages assume that the more difficult it is to obtain a divorce, the more families will remain intact. The purpose of Covenant Marriage is to give promises made before marriage a more robust legal standing.
Despite the best intentions of those who fought for these marriages to have legal status, only a negligible number of newlyweds choose to commit to a Covenant Marriage.
For example, In Louisiana, between 2000 and 2010, only around 1% of couples chose to commit to a Covenant Marriage.
A full 99% of Louisiana couples chose to marry under the standard prevailing marriage laws which permit no-fault divorce.
Underwhelming Interest in Covenant Marriage
In Arizona, the rate of these marriages among newlyweds ranges from a quarter of a percent to a high of only 1%. And Arkansas is no exception, Covenant Marriage devotees in Arkansas are also around 1% or less.
Out of over 11,000 marriage licenses issued in Arkansas as of May 2003, only 4 were new Covenant Marriages and 5 were re-designations of existing marriages as Covenant Marriages. That’s merely 9 marriages out of 11,000.
The Goals Behind Covenant Marriage
Advocates of Covenant Marriage seek to defend the sanctity of marriage by creating legal regimes that promote and strengthen marriage, curb the rate of divorce, reduce the number of children with unmarried parents, discourage cohabitation, and restore the reputation of marriage as an honorable and worthy institution.
As you can imagine, Covenant Marriage has its critics.
But I think some of the charges against these marriages are a bit extreme. Some argue that waiting periods and mandatory classes add new frustrations to already frustrated lives. This displays a fundamental ignorance about the corrosive impact of divorce on children and their emotional development.
Does Preventing a Speedy Divorce Harms Kids?
It’s been argued that creating obstacles to a quick and easy divorce (i.e. holding someone to their contractual promises), can “easily exacerbate a bad situation and harm kids” (Keyes, 2014).
Harm them more than divorce?
Charges of paternalism are often levied when the government intervenes in marriage and family issues. Alienation of affection law is another example of how the legal system can be used to discourage divorce.
Couples curious about Covenant Marriage are asking to be held to a personal standard the runs against the grain of popular culture.
As such, they have more in common with polyamorous couples than “no-fault” couples.
Entering into a covenant marriage is entering into a Culture Covenant. A covenant which reflects an unchanging shared meaning. This meaning is typically grounded in shared religious belief.
Is Covenant Marriage Religiously Neutral?
The Covenant Marriage laws were written in legal language that is neutral with respect to religion. These marriages provide an option for couples willing to share a higher level of commitment to their union. Covenant Marriages can be contracted by either heterosexual or same-sex couples.
Still, many people on opposite sides of this issue share the view that these laws reflect a state-government recognition, of a religiously-based marriage contract.
The mental state of the couple at the time of their wedding is essential in determining the validity of the union. Legislative involvement in covenant marriage reflects the state’s inability to distinguish between the consent of the parties to be married and the desire of any given spouse to stay married.
Some see paternalism while others see a choice.
Why is Covenant Marriage so Profoundly Unpopular?
Each state has an interest in validating a couple’s agreement to be married. It’s the daily commitment of married spouses holding families intact that promotes the true benefit to the state.
The issue of staying in a marriage or being free to leave is a comment on the extent to which a spouse values their individual liberty.
Spouses might come to value their ability to choose, particularly when they’ve relinquished it at the altar.
Is the State Just Prolonging Bad Marriages?
Most states tolerate divorce because the state’s interest in fostering stable marriages is not being served by preserving unstable relationships.
Some have argued that the state’s interest in stability is perhaps best served when bad relationships can be quickly dissolved. This paves the way for viable new marriages to replace them.
Skeptics believe that despite noble intentions, Covenant Marriage impairs the state’s interest in marriage by prolonging marriages that the state, ordinarily might deem as not worth the effort.
This attitude reflects a cynical stance toward marital growth and change.
The state does not possess perfect wisdom as to what constitutes a “bad relationship” that is beyond repair.
I find it particularly vexing that an agreed-upon course of couples therapy is perceived, through this line of reasoning, as merely dilatory; needlessly postponing the inevitable.
This brings us back to a fundamental question; should the government even have a role in fortifying marriage and keeping families intact? And what does it mean that, at best, only 1% of betrothed couples are willing to commit to a Covenant Marriage?
Center for Arizona Policy, 2001 and De Millo, 2002. as cited in Drewianka, S. (2003). Civil Unions and Covenant Marriage: The Economics of Reforming Marital Institutions. The University of Wisconsin.
Hawkins, A.J., Nock, S.L., Wilson, J.C., Sanchez, L., and Wright, J.D. (2002). Attitudes about Covenant Marriage and Divorce: Policy Implications from a Three-State Comparison. Family Relations, 51 (2), 166-175.
Keyes, Scott (2014-04-11). “Conservatives aren’t just fighting same-sex marriage. They’re also trying to stop divorce”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-06-30.
McClain, Linda C. “Marriage Pluralism in the United States: Multiple Jurisdictions and the Demands of Equal Citizenship” (PDF). Untying the Knots Conference, Brandeis University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-10-06. Retrieved 2014-10-06.
Spaht, K. Lousiana’s Covenant Marriage: Social Commentary and Legal Implications. http://faculty. law.lsu.edu/katherinespaht/covenantmarriage.html. Retrieved February 18, 2010. iv. http://www.legal-explanations.com/definitions/nofault-divorce.htm. Retrieved February 18, 2010. v.
Nock, Sanchez, & Wright. Covenant Marriage, The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America. Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London, 2008.
Spaht, K. Lousiana’s Covenant Marriage: Social Commentary and Legal Implications. http://faculty. law.lsu.edu/katherinespaht/covenantmarriage.html. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
Nock, S.L., Wilson, J.C., Sanchez, L., and Wright, J.D. (2002). Attitudes about Covenant Marriage and Divorce: Policy Implications from a Three-State Comparison. Family Relations, 51 (2), 166-175.