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Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2000/ 6 Shevat, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Fools in love: Premarital counseling could help school kids --
IF YOU WANT TO BE A JUNE BRIDE in some cities, you're going to have to get premarriage counseling first. That's the mandate of one family-values judge trying to do his part to reduce the rate of divorce.

In Lenawee County, Mich., District Court Judge James Sheridan has joined other local public officials and clergy in a 1997 social pact aimed at helping people understand marital issues before they take the plunge. It's a glorious idea given the numbers - 68 out of every 100 marriages end in divorce - but unlikely to withstand inevitable court challenges. What right, after all, does government have insisting that consenting adults get marriage counseling?

Those favoring the idea, including leaders in other states, argue that government has a legitimate interest in marriage given that divorce wreaks havoc on society's systems and institutions.

After all, we require would-be drivers to demonstrate driving skills and pass a test before they get behind the wheel of a potential killing machine. It's not too much of a stretch to say that bad marriages can be potentially devastating to a wide circle of victims, from the children of divorce to the public institutions that often pick up the pieces of fallen families.

Options under consideration range from mandated counseling to lower license fees for those who attend counseling or marriage courses.

Skeptics have raised some good questions: Who would provide the counseling? Who would pay for it? What about those who can't afford to pay? Can government intervene in personal matters to such an extent? And, finally, in those instances where clergy provide the counseling, are we flirting with constitutional conflicts of church and state?

Conceptually, premarital counseling is a swell idea, but realistically, it won't work. The probability is that premarital counseling would benefit only those who seek it voluntarily. As for the rest, the process would be a waste of time and money. Most people who decide to get married, ipso facto, aren't thinking straight. A few perfunctory counseling sessions aren't going to suddenly bring them to their senses.

What might work better than bureaucrats wagging a finger in our adult faces is to create a high-school course on marriage and family and require that every student pass it in order to graduate. What young people need to learn as soon as possible is that marriage isn't about sex and romance. Veterans of marriage know this with unusual clarity, but most of us entered the institution with distorted perceptions and expectations.

Marriage is above all a contract, a commitment to create a home together and to provide for children born of that union. Students could discuss the real issues of marriage and try to answer the tough questions: How should children be raised and disciplined? How should money be spent and saved? How should household chores be divided? Who takes car pool? Who gets up in the middle of the night to feed the baby? Who gets to use the bathroom first? Who buys the groceries and cooks the meals?

Yikes. Who wants to get married? Exactly.

Students also could talk about divorce, most of them from first-hand experience. They know already how divorce feels, but they haven't begun to realize the far-reaching and forever consequences of broken families. Which parents and stepparents attend graduations and weddings? Which wife is "grandma"? How do you deal with the former spouse, who, incidentally, never goes away?

Education is our best hope for curing what ails us, but earlier is better. Once the little lovebirds have stars in their eyes and visions of bridesmaids' dresses in their heads, it's too late. Trying to counsel two hormonally deranged young people about marriage after they've exchanged engagement rings is like trying to teach a dog to sit after you've already given him the bone.

Meanwhile, we have the perfect vehicle in place for teaching kids about marriage --- the vaunted sex education course. While we're teaching our little ones how to use birth control and avoid AIDS, we could teach them how to pick a suitable marriage partner.

I realize this sort of thinking treads dangerously close to family values-speak by seeming to promote -- gad -- heterosexual marriage. We wouldn't want to give the impression we're pushing traditional values on young minds. Maybe we could update the curriculum by including some contemporary incentives, say, free condoms for extra credit?

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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