What can covenant marriage do for a couple?

Posted: Feb 09, 2001 12:00 AM
Two years ago Nicole Kidman boasted that she was beyond the seven-year itch, was finally "safe." This week Tom Cruise and Nicole announced that after 11 years they were calling it quits. Not exactly a Valentine story.

How about this one? Four years ago, on Valentine's Day, Sheran Samuel, a 35-year-old speech pathologist, and her husband, Guy, stepped up to the altar of the First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, La., to convert to a covenant marriage. They had been married 13 years. Not great years, not bad years, the way Sheran tells it. "I wouldn't say we were happily married. I wouldn't say we were unhappily married. We were just married," she tells me.

They fought sometimes, sometimes lots, over the kinds of things married people do fight about when they have two jobs, two kids, and not enough hours in the day: How could you forget to get the brakes repaired! Who decided that was my job, aren't I doing enough around here?! How can you get so emotional! All you care about is your logic!

Getting out of a standard marriage in Louisiana takes just six months, no questions asked. With a covenant contract, spouses agree to wait longer, live separately at least 18 months and to seek counseling to resolve marital difficulties.

So when the idea of covenant marriage arose, Sheran had her doubts: "If things didn't get better, would it make things more difficult?" But she swallowed her doubts and listened to her husband, and together they signed the statement closing off the option of quick, "easy" divorce.

Well, a few years later, things did get worse, not better. A lot worse. Her husband lost his job, adding to the stress. Even a small practical dispute could end up in a furious fight about fighting. Even with counseling, they vacillated between good times and bad times. Sheran had had enough. She filed for legal separation. At the time, divorce seemed like the only option.

"I did it for relief," she recalls. "I needed relief from the conflict, relief from the stress." Yet here she was saddled with a covenant marriage! "I told my pastor I was very angry about signing the covenant marriage. At the time I felt trapped," says Sheran. "The wait was way too long. We'd been through enough pain, why drag it out? Things were hopeless, I felt, and the law was making us needlessly suffer."

As it happens, Sheran's is the worst-case scenario that critics of covenant marriage laws predicted. A woman, pressured by her husband and pastor, limits her freedom to divorce. But what happened next wasn't in the critics' script. At Guy's urging, they each began individual counseling. Sheran began to feel stronger, and Guy began to do thoughtful, kind acts for her and the children. Ten months later, after much healing, they reunited their family; their marriage has never been happier.

Without covenant marriage, where would you be now? I ask her. "Divorced," she says without hesitation. "Six months wasn't long enough for us to heal." In many states the waiting period for divorce is even shorter.

And how would your life be different? Sheran pauses: "I think my life would be full of pain and struggle. We would not be in our house, my children would be bouncing back and forth from home to home, and I'm afraid we would still be very angry; we would not have taken the time to resolve that and I would probably be feeling a lot of regret."

Nicole and Tom, are you taking notes?