Covenant Marriage

A movement out of the southern U.S. aims to strengthen the marital bond with a new kind of marriage commitment. According to spokespeople for the movement, it's not about making divorce more difficult, but about making marriages work better, and saving family values.

By Jeffrey Cottrill
Updated: August 27, 2014
Dating after Divorce

"Believing that marriage is a covenant intended by God to be a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, we vow to God, each other, our families, and our community to remain steadfast in unconditional love, reconciliation, and sexual purity, while purposefully growing in our Covenant Marriage relationship."

This vow begins what's known as a Covenant Marriage, a recently developed alternative to traditional marriage (now available in three US states) that strengthens the bond between husband and wife -- in part, by eliminating no-fault divorce. The founders and supporters of this type of marriage want to re-establish the marital relationship as a lifelong commitment, as they claim it was intended to be.

"This is not a movement against divorce," stresses Phil Waugh, the National Coordinator for the Covenant Marriage Movement. "That's not our focus. What we want is to raise the standards of marriage relationships and their positive attributes. Our desire is to change the hearts of the couples. We want to encourage them to move forward towards conflict resolution."

When a man and woman choose to enter a Covenant Marriage, they must first undergo counseling by either a marriage counselor or a clergyman of any religious sect (e.g., a priest, minister, rabbi, etc.). The premarital counseling involves discussion of the purpose of marriage and the spouses' responsibilities towards each other, the recognition that marriage is a lifelong union, and the legal aspects of Covenant Marriage.

Once they finish the premarital counseling sessions, they agree to get more counseling if any problems arise during the marriage; furthermore, they have a legal commitment to obtain counseling if one or both want a divorce someday.

The Genesis of Covenant Marriage

Covenant Marriage became a legal marriage option in Louisiana in 1997, in Arizona the following year, and in Arkansas this year. Bills supporting this marriage option have passed one house in several other states, including Texas and Oregon. "We've raised awareness of the value of a lifetime relationship," says Waugh. "The number of these couples continues to grow."

The Covenant Marriage Movement, headquartered in Nashville, was established in May, 1999, by a group of religious leaders, politicians, educators, and counselors. The organization's goal is to bring God deeper into marriage and re-establish marriage as a lifelong bond. The movement is supported by dozens of groups across the US, including the American Association of Christian Counselors, Family Foundations International, and Masterful Living.

"We're motivated by Christian values; they're our reason for being," says Waugh. "God is drawing our society towards understanding what marriage is about. Through that, society will change from being a divorce culture to, in effect, a Covenant Marriage culture. It won't be overnight, of course. That's good, because we didn't want it to be a flash-in-the-pan."

Louisiana senator Tony Perkins, another founder of the movement, authored the 1997 Covenant Marriage Bill. His primary motivation is to battle social ills that, he feels, largely result from broken families. "Strong evidence shows that the decline of the two-parent family has had consequences that the government must address," Perkins says. "The taxpayers are picking up the pieces: the social costs of juvenile delinquency and unwed mothers. So we're going to the source of the problems, instead of the symptoms. We do whatever we can to promote the two-parent family -- and to give couples the necessary tools to ensure that they'll try to work out their problems in the marriage and make it last."

Perkins made Covenant Marriage an option -- one alternative to traditional marriage, rather than the only alternative -- to encourage couples to discuss their commitments and goals, and to resolve any major disagreements before embarking on a life together. Through this, Perkins expects that couples who can't agree on their commitment will break up before they enter a bond not meant to be broken. "In my view," says Perkins, "avoiding a bad marriage is just as good as creating a good marriage."

Grounds for Divorce

In Louisiana, the grounds for divorce for a Covenant Marriage are:

  • one spouse has committed adultery
  • one spouse has been sentenced to death or hard labor for a felony
  • one spouse has abandoned the other for at least a year
  • one spouse has physically or sexually abused the other spouse or their child
  • the couple has been separated for at least two years.

Perkins originally wanted adultery and abandonment to be the only grounds, but the Bill was amended to include the others. In Arizona, the grounds for dissolution also include a spouse's habitual use of drugs, and the mutual agreement of both spouses to divorce. In Arkansas, which has the nation's second-highest divorce rate, the grounds for divorce in a Covenant Marriage include adultery, felony, and physical or sexual abuse as well.

The Covenant Marriage Bill in Louisiana met with some opposition from, ironically, the Roman Catholic Church -- to which 80% of southern Louisiana belongs. Because Roman Catholicism does not support the notion of any marriage ending in divorce, bishops refused to back a marriage alternative in which the prospect of divorce was acknowledged, via counseling, as a possibility. The Church gave the Bill its blessing only when the subject of divorce was removed from pre-marital counseling; however, there has remained concern that marriage has become a two-tier system.

Who chooses a Covenant Marriage?

Supporters of the movement claim that couples are motivated to join in a Covenant Marriage as a way to make their bonds more secure. "There have been primarily two large groups getting involved in Covenant Marriage," Perkins explains. "You have those who came from broken homes; they understand the pain of divorce, and how fragile the marital relationship is. You also have people who have experienced divorce and don't want to go through it again. The increase in cohabitation shows that a lot of couples have foregone marriage out of fear that there's no protection in it. Covenant Marriage offers this sort of protection: the power shifts from the spouse who wants out to the spouse who wants to maintain the marriage."

But does Covenant Marriage really prevent divorce -- or, more specifically, save marriages?

"It has been successful based upon information I've received," says Perkins. "Statistically, the results are yet to be seen. A lot of couples still don't know about Covenant Marriage, because the clerks of the Court don't tell them about it: the clerks exist off self-generated funds that come out of traditional marriages, and some don't want to do the extra work for no extra money. So we're still trying to figure out new ways to promote the program."

According to Waugh, the movement is more concerned with the long-term effect on society's view of marriage than on immediate results.

"The change will be a generational change," explains Waugh. "Children with Covenant Marriage as a model will grow up to look for that for themselves. Right now many of them don't have a model. As Covenant Marriage changes the hearts of couples, we'll have stronger marriages and a stronger society. Couples will be looking beyond the immediate gratification of marriage towards the model they're setting for their children.

"The greatest benefit of Covenant Marriage is unconditional love," Waugh adds. "It creates a healthier environment and a happier environment."

For more information on the Covenant Marriage movement, visit their website. For more information on Louisina's Covenant Marriage policy, visit Tony Perkins' website.


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August 16, 2006

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