Belief

'Covenant' Marriages -- How Some Christian Couples Make It a Lot Harder to Divorce Each Other

Only offered in just three states, some Christians are embracing “the sacredness of marriage.”

Jill Duggar’s TLC wedding special broke network records. More than 4.4 million viewers tuned in to see the nuptials take place. But there was one little detail the producers forgot to include; a little detail that means the couple better hope for martial bliss… because divorce won’t come easy.

Jill and husband Derick agreed to a “covenant wedding,” a specific marriage contract most people don’t even know exists. And with good reason, as covenant marriages are only offered in three states: Arkansas, Arizona and Louisiana.

Jill Duggar was married in her native Arkansas. But for a state where 84% of the population claims to believe in God with absolute certainty, it has the second highest divorce rate in the United States. Rising divorce rates aren’t unique to Arkansas. In fact, the entire nation seems to have fallen victim to similar trends. The country’s marriage rate is now at an all-time low, with a record 51% of the population opting out of taking their vows.

But that doesn’t mean they’re staying single. Rates of cohabitating couples are on the rise, and according to private research company Demographic Intelligence, less than half a million couples were cohabitating in 1960 compared to the 7.5 million doing so in 2010.

Then again, there are certain activities that should be reserved for man and wife, right? That’s what the Christian community argues, at least. Maybe that’s why the Covenant Marriage Movement has been getting more recognition in recent years.

So what is this Covenant Marriage Movement all about? According to its official site, “A covenant is intended by God to be a lifelong fruitful relationship between a man and a woman. Marriage is a vow to God, to 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.”

Entering into a covenant marriages means a couple is willing to accept limited terms for seeking divorce. Though the terms differ slightly state to state, there are six specific grounds on which a spouse may seek divorce:

  • Adultery
  • Commitment of a felony or sentence of death or imprisonment
  • Abandonment of matrimonial domicile for a year and refusal to return
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Separation for two years
  • Separation for one year from date of execution of separation agreement

Even if an individual can prove his or her spouse has violated the terms of their marriage in one of these six ways, the couple must undergo a period of counseling and an additional waiting period (two years in Louisiana) before divorce proceedings can begin.

The Covenant Marriage Movement was officially announced back in 1999, through a press conference held in New York City by the representatives of the Movement. But the Covenant Marriage Act had already been introduced in the state of Louisiana two years prior.

Louisiana, 1997

House Bill 756 was passed by the Louisiana Legislature in attempts to curb divorce rates. The publication “Best Of New Orleans” coined Katherine S. Spaht the “mother” of covenant marriage in Louisiana. Spaht, who was a professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Law when the bill was first introduced, had been a lifelong Christian and worked throughout her career to “protect children of all ages from suffering from their parents’ actions.” The more she learned about the effects of divorce, the more dedicated she became to the Movement.

“The suffering was abundantly clear,” she told the publication. “I reached that conclusion in the fall of 1995, and I promised God I was going to do something about it.”

The following year, Spaht was introduced to Tony Perkins, who was then serving as a Republican member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Together, the two of them worked on drafting the nation’s first Covenant Marriage Bill. Today, Perkins is president of the Family Research Council, a conservative public policy and lobbying organization based in Washington DC, and Spaht has gone on to write several books about marriage in Louisiana.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the bill, not a single couple in Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Tammany or Jefferson parishes applied for a covenant marriage license the day it was passed, Aug. 15, 1997.

The “Declaration of Intent” Louisiana couples must sign before being granted a covenant marriage reads,

“We do solemnly declare that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman who agree to live together as husband and wife for so long as they both may live. We have chosen each other carefully and disclosed to one another everything which could adversely affect the decision to enter this marriage. We have received premarital counseling on the nature, purposes, and responsibilities of marriage. We have read the Covenant Marriage Act, and we understand that a Covenant Marriage is for life. If we experience marital difficulties, we commit ourselves to take all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling.

"With full knowledge of what this commitment means, we do hereby declare that our marriage will be bound by Louisiana law on Covenant Marriages and we promise to love, honor, and care for one another as husband and wife for the rest of our lives."

Just one year later, covenant marriage was introduced to the state of Arizona.

Arizona, 1998

The law allowing Arizona couples to enter into a covenant marriage can be found in Sections 25-901 through 25-906 of the Arizona Revised Statutes.

In addition to the six grounds by which a spouse may seek divorce that all three states share, Arizona added two more to the list:

  • The spouse against whom the divorce case is filed has regularly abused drugs or alcohol
  • The spouses both agree to a divorce

The written statement Arizona couples must sign before being granted a covenant marriage reads,

“We solemnly declare that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman who agree to live together as husband and wife for as long as they both live. We have chosen each other carefully and have received premarital counseling on the nature, purposes and responsibilities of marriage. We understand that a covenant marriage is for life. If we experience marital difficulties, we commit ourselves to take all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling.

"With full knowledge of what this commitment means, we do declare that our marriage will be bound by Arizona law on covenant marriages and we promise to love, honor and care for one another as husband and wife for the rest of our lives.”

As in Louisiana, Arizona couples must go through a period of premarital counseling before they can apply for a covenant marriage.

The Center For Arizona Policy states on its official page, “At a time when the institution of marriage has been devalued in our society by divorce and marriage counterfeits, covenant marriage offers an opportunity for couples to demonstrate their commitment to the original intent of marriage as a lifelong relationship. The state of Arizona officially recognized covenant marriages after a Center for Arizona Policy (CAP)-supported bill was passed into law in 1998.”’

Three years later, covenant marriage made its way to the state of Arkansas.

Arkansas, 2001

Act 1486 created an option for couple in Arkansas to choose a covenant marriage in place of a traditional one.

In addition to the limitations for obtaining a divorce, and the requirement that they seek counseling should the marriage enter into trouble, Arkansas couples bound by covenant marriage may only sue each other for certain causes of action (unless judicially separated). They include: causes of action pertaining to contracts, for restitution of separate property, for judicial separation, for divorce, for declaration of nullity of the marriage, or for causes of action pertaining to spousal support or support or custody of a child while the spouses are living separate and apart, although not judicially separated.

And just as in Louisiana and Arizona, Arkansas couple seeking a covenant marriage must first sign a Declaration of Intent, which reads,

“We do solemnly declare that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman who agree to live together as a husband and wife for so long as they both may live. We have chosen each other carefully and disclosed to one another everything which could adversely affect the decision to enter into this marriage. We have received authorized counseling on the nature, purposes, and responsibilities of marriage. We have read the Covenant Marriage Act of 2001, and we understand that a covenant marriage is for life. If we experience marital difficulties, we commit ourselves to take all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling.

"With full knowledge of what this commitment means, we do hereby declare that our marriage will be bound by Arkansas law on covenant marriages and we promise to love, honor, and care for one another as husband and wife for the rest of our lives.”

All three states allow previously married couples to convert their existing marriage into a covenant marriage (even if the couple was married in another state).

Cathy, Jill Duggar’s mother-in-law, told People magazine, “I signed their covenant marriage certificate. It was so special. But it wouldn’t matter if they chose that type of marriage certificate or not, those two would still have a covenant marriage.”

Father Jim Bob told the magazine, “This is a time we have prayed for for 23 years. As Jill and I were out in the hallway waiting to come in, I thought about how Michelle and I got married 30 years ago. I couldn’t hold back the tears thinking I was giving away my daughter. It was an exciting time, but it was also a time of a lot of emotion.”

The Covenant Marriage Counsel insists the movement is about restoring “the sacredness of marriage,” for the purpose of calling “individual couples, families, churches, communities, the nation, and the world back to an understanding and practice of marriage as covenant, which is the foundation of society, for God’s glory.”

Carrie Weisman is an AlterNet staff writer who focuses on sex, relationships and culture. Got tips, ideas or a first-person story? Email her

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