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Feature Article


Covenant Marriage: What Is It and Does It Work?

Kim Leon, Ph.D., Former Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri Extension

Recently, covenant marriage has become a hot topic of debate. Three states (Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona) have adopted covenant marriage laws and 20 other states have considered adding covenant marriage laws. Covenant marriage is an alternative to traditional marriage. It requires that spouses take an oath making a lifelong commitment to marriage and that they get premarital counseling. Divorce is only allowed in limited circumstances, such as abuse, adultery, addiction, and felony imprisonment. Spouses must be separated for a specified period of time (e.g. two years in Louisiana) and go to marital counseling before a divorce will be granted. Currently, Missouri does not have covenant marriage. During the 2002 legislative session, both the Missouri Senate and the Missouri House of Representatives introduced bills to establish covenant marriage in Missouri, but neither of these bills was passed.

With covenant marriage receiving increasing attention by politicians and the media, the question of public opinion about covenant marriage has arisen. In a recent study, researchers polled people living in two states that do have covenant marriage (Louisiana and Arizona) and one state that does not have covenant marriage (Minnesota) about their attitudes toward covenant marriage. This study found that 39% of the adults surveyed were strongly supportive of covenant marriage, 47% had mixed views, and 14% were strongly opposed to covenant marriage. Adults who were more religiously active and had more traditional views about gender roles (e.g. the husband should be the breadwinner and the wife should take care of the home and family) were more likely to support covenant marriage.

People were also asked about their attitudes toward specific aspects of covenant marriage (premarital counseling, agreeing in advance to seek counseling if there are problems in the marriage, and long waiting periods for divorce). Most adults (80%) said that premarital education is important. Most adults (91%) also supported the idea of agreeing in advance to get marital counseling if problems arise. Fewer adults (66%) agreed with long waiting periods for divorce.

Researchers and other professionals who work with families are divided on the issue of covenant marriage. The primary argument for covenant marriage is that it may lower the divorce rate and result in stronger, happier marriages. Couples may be better prepared for marriage by being required to participate in premarital counseling. Proponents of covenant marriage also argue that the requirements of a long waiting period and marital counseling in order to get a divorce may increase couples' chances of working out their problems and staying married. A study of married individuals found that 60% of those who were "very unhappy" in the late 1980's, but did not divorce, reported 5 years later that their marriage was "quite happy" or "very happy." Finally, supporters of covenant marriage argue that the symbolism of a "covenant" and the requirements that go along with covenant marriage will cause couples to take marriage more seriously and be more committed to making their marriage last.

Several arguments have been made against covenant marriage by both conservative and liberal opponents. Conservative opponents of covenant marriage are concerned that adoption of covenant marriage will stigmatize or weaken traditional marriage. Traditional marriage may be taken less seriously than covenant marriage. Critics of covenant marriage also argue that changing marriage laws opens the door for other challenges to marriage laws (e.g. who can legally get married). Liberal opponents of covenant marriage argue that couples may face social pressure or pressure from members of the clergy to sign covenant marriage agreements. In addition, the restrictions on divorce could lead to nasty court battles when one spouse wants a divorce and the other does not. The limited circumstances in which divorce is allowed could also lead spouses to engage in activities, such as adultery, in order to get a divorce. Finally, the waiting period and marital counseling required for getting a divorce may make it difficult for women to leave abusive relationships and increase their chances of being harmed by their spouse.

One issue that must be considered in deciding whether to enact covenant marriage laws, is whether covenant marriage will be effective in reducing divorce rates or improving marriages. Currently there is no information on whether covenant marriage prevents divorce because it is such a recent change and, so far, few people have chosen covenant marriage. Covenant marriage has only been adopted by three states (Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona). Louisiana was the first state to adopt covenant marriage in 1997, and fewer than 5% of marriages in Louisiana are covenant marriages.


Although there is no research on the effectiveness of covenant marriage laws, there is research on the effectiveness of marriage education/counseling, which is one of the major requirements of covenant marriages laws. The results of studies that have examined whether marriage education reduces the divorce rate or improves marriages have been mixed. One study found that there were no differences in marital quality between individuals who had attended premarital education classes and those who had not. In contrast, a nationwide survey found that adults who had participated in premarital counseling were less likely than those who had not participated to have thought about divorce. Also, several studies have found that couples who have participated in the PREP program (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program), which is a widely used marriage education program, have more positive communication and marital satisfaction than couples who have not taken PREP. Couples who have taken PREP are also less likely to divorce than are couples who have not taken PREP, for up to 5 years after the program. However, we don't know whether marriage education actually causes couples to have better marriages or whether it is couples with better marriages who are more likely to participate in marriage education. Although it is not clear whether marriage education actually causes lower divorce rates or higher marital quality, it is evident that adults who participate in premarital education are very satisfied with the experience. In fact, one study found that 90% of couples who had taken premarital education classes said they would choose to do it again.

In summary, covenant marriage has both pros and cons and nearly half of the adults surveyed have mixed feelings about this option. Although there is currently no evidence on the effectiveness of covenant marriage, there is some support for the effectiveness of marriage education, and most adults are in favor of marital counseling/education both prior to and during marriage.

Hawkins, A.J., Nock, S.L., Wilson, J.C., Sanchez, L., & Wright, J.D. (2002). Attitudes about covenant marriage and divorce: Policy implications from a three-state comparison. Family Relations, 51, 166-175.

Missouri Bar. Marriage.


Stanley, S.M. (2001). Making a case for premarital education. Family Relations, 50, 272-280.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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