The simple dictionary definition of “covenant” is an agreement. Christian faiths take this definition a step further and define a covenant as a contract or agreement between two or more parties and link this term to God’s promise to the human race. A covenant marriage arises from this Biblical promise. The Catholic Church views all marriages as covenants and, therefore, a covenant marriage in the eyes of state law is not necessary in the faith.
“A covenant marriage provides an alternative to the traditional marriage contract for couples who oppose no-fault divorce or who want to demonstrate a stronger commitment to marriage,” states the website for The National Conference of State Legislatures. Couples choosing a covenant marriage must receive premarital counseling and, in some cases, marital counseling if problems arise during the marriage.
Louisiana was the first state to pass covenant marriage laws in 1997. Arkansas passed similar legislation in 1998, and Arizona followed in 2001. Twenty-one other states have since proposed legislation to allow for covenant marriages, but none of this legislation have passed to date. According to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, less than one percent up to three percent of all marriages performed in the United States are covenant marriages. Couples married in a conventional or traditional marriage in one of the states with covenant marriage laws may convert their marriage to a covenant marriage at any time.
A traditional marriage occurs when a couple purchases a marriage license, obtains two witnesses to the marriage, and has a state-licensed agent perform the wedding ceremony. A traditional marriage can be easily dissolved through a no-fault divorce. Every state in America offers traditional marriages to male-female couples with more and more states offering this marriage option to same-sex couples as well.
Covenant marriages are essentially different from traditional or conventional marriages in that covenant marriages include specific requirements that must be met before a divorce can be granted, if it is granted at all.
For example, in all three states with covenant marriage laws, couples in a covenant marriage may divorce only after two years of separation or after proving adultery, physical or sexual abuse, habitual intemperance (such as alcohol or drug abuse) or commission of a felony that results in jail time or a sentence of death. Louisiana and Arkansas law further allows for a divorce in a covenant marriage based on grounds of cruel or ill treatment by a spouse. In Arizona, a divorce in a covenant marriage can be granted if both spouses agree to the divorce. Louisiana and Arizona law both permit a divorce in a covenant marriage due to spousal abandonment.
About 40 percent to 50 percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. The group reports the divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher. The Covenant Marriage Movement group has been lobbying for many years to “make divorce socially unacceptable” in the hopes of lowering the divorce rate in America.
A telephone study of 1,324 adults conducted in 2001 in Minnesota, a state without covenant marriage laws, and in Louisiana and Arizona, both states with covenant marriage laws, revealed “39 percent of the adults surveyed were strongly supportive of covenant marriages, 47 percent had mixed views, and 14 percent were strongly opposed to covenant marriages.” The study found that adults who were “more religiously active” and who had “more traditional views about gender roles” (such as the husband works to provide for the family while the wife stays home to care for the family) were more likely to support covenant marriages.
In this same study, 80 percent of respondents agreed “premarital education is important” with 91 percent supporting the idea of agreeing in advance to seek marital counseling should problems arise during the marriage. Only 66 percent of those surveyed agreed with the longer waiting periods for a divorce to be granted in a covenant marriage. Opponents of covenant marriage argue that longer waiting periods for divorce can put women and children in abusive situations in even greater physical peril.
The National Healthy Marriage Resource Center reports that 53 percent of all Louisiana court clerks “expressed some negative sentiment about covenant marriage and equated covenant marriage with a religious movement and were concerned that the law brought religion too closely into a state licensing process.”
Covenant marriage briefly hit the media spotlight in the fall of 2014 when TLC aired a special episode of the show 19 Kids and Counting in which Jill Duggar, who is the second of the 19 children featured on the show, married Derick Dillard. The couple, whose wedding took place in June 2014 in Arkansas, chose a covenant marriage. In November 2014, Jessa Duggar, the third child in the famously fertile family, married Ben Seewald in Arkansas under a covenant marriage as well. The Duggar family is devout Independent Baptist in faith, and it appears the sisters’ decisions to marry under a covenant marriage is one based ultimately on their religion.
While there has been no research conducted on the effectiveness of covenant marriage laws or its ability to lower the divorce rate, research is available on the effectiveness of marriage education and premarital counseling. This research has shown that adults who participated in premarital counseling were less likely than those who had not participated to think about divorce. Other studies have shown that couples who participated in premarital counseling “have more positive communication and marital satisfaction” than those couples who did not receive the same counseling.