By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
One night, he grew so distraught that she wouldn't reconcile, he brought a loaded shotgun into the bedroom where she was resting and handed it to her, saying, "Here, just shoot me. You're killing me anyway."
That was the last straw: She filed for divorce on December 3, 2001, but only alleged "no-fault" grounds in her petition. Even though Christi and Mark were married before a justice of the peace and had never been active churchgoers, Mark went through a crisis of faith. "Basically, he got real religious on me," Christi says.
"Scripturally, what she was doing was wrong and unfair," says Mark, who searched the Internet for like-minded souls. He found Emergency Marital Technicians, a group whose Web site describes it as a team that "literally arrive[s] on the scene of a marital accident" and applies various "para-marital" procedures--legal, emotional, spiritual--to resuscitate the broken marriage and enhance reconciliation. (The group also will be lecturing at the Smart Marriages Conference in June.)
Lubbock lawyer David Moody provided the legal triage. Part of the divorce-law reform wing of the marriage movement, he is driven by religious convictions as well as his considerable skills as a litigator to "defend marriage in the courtroom." In the 1997 legislative session, he also worked with Representative Wohlgemuth and other conservatives to repeal no-fault in Texas in cases where minor children were involved. The bill never got out of committee, but Moody still believes divorces should only be granted when a marriage has been destroyed by the infidelity, criminality or abandonment of one of the parties. No-fault divorces (where one party just wants out) are often frivolously granted, he contends. "Seventy-five percent of all divorces are low-conflict marriages. They are a result of one spouse being unhappy and thinking divorce will give them happiness. Studies point out that divorce does not make people happy."
This research plays right into the hands of social conservatives who believe that no-fault divorce is a too-easy exit strategy for a self-absorbed counterculture that scoffs at such virtues as commitment and self-sacrifice. Now they had proof positive that the elusive search for happiness brings misery not only to children, but also to adults, half of whose first marriages are expected to end in divorce. The divorce-law reformers hope to reduce that misery by making divorce more difficult to obtain.
Many in the marriage movement, rather than eliminate no-fault and return to a system that might exacerbate conflict and be a boon to private investigators, advocate a more modest position: requiring a longer separation period before filing for divorce. That would leave more time for reconciliation and relationship skills education where the parties might learn to minimize conflict and at least make divorce easier on their children.
Legislation proposing covenant marriages such as the House bill introduced by Wohlgemuth this session attempts to incorporate some of these concepts. If couples opt for a higher-octane covenant marriage, they are agreeing to divorce only in the event one party is legally at fault (adultery, abandonment). Not only must they receive pre-marital counseling, they also must submit to reconciliation counseling before divorce, even if they are the victim of domestic violence. Not surprisingly, women's groups strongly oppose the bill.
"We don't think counseling is a good thing in cases of domestic violence," says Barbra McLendon, public policy director with the Texas Council on Family Violence. "Statistics show that battering is really on the rise when a woman tries to leave an abusive relationship. Why create opportunities for the batterer to have access to his victim?"
Although Louisiana was the first state to pass covenant marriage legislation in 1997, it's not the coupling of choice for most Louisianans. "Only 3 percent of all couples are choosing it," says researcher Theodora Ooms. "I don't think it is a useful intervention because people who choose it are probably less likely to need it." David Moody is not lobbying for covenant marriage legislation, preferring to fight his no-fault battles one case at a time. In the Beach case, he convinced state District Judge Tommy Wallace in Canton to appoint an attorney ad litem to represent society--"a groundbreaking case," he says, for those who want to save their marriages. "Society has an interest in determining whether a marriage was productive to society." Apparently society also had an interest in getting paid, because the attorney ad litem withdrew from the case after Mark Beach ran out of funds.
But that didn't stop Moody, who, rather than petition the court for marriage counseling, filed for a pretrial injunction asking that the court compel reconciliation, which would include compelling "physical availability...at times mutually convenient."
"I would like us to share the same household again," Mark testified. "I'd like us to start romancing again."
"But don't you want your wife to be happy?" asked Christi's attorney Paul Elliott. "Do you believe that her happiness is staying in a marriage she doesn't want to be in?"
"I believe we make choices, and I believe she could be happy if she chooses to be."
The Dallas 5th District Court of Appeals chose not to agree with Mark, affirming that a duty to reconcile under Texas law was tantamount to Christi becoming an indentured servant "for life," which is why she decided to leave her marriage in the first place.