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Speaker Mike Johnson's "covenant marriage" doesn't make it more meaningful
The idea, meant to strengthen marriage, actually makes it harder to leave a bad one
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It’s been somewhat jarring over the past week to hear mainstream media commentators describe Speaker of the House Mike Johnson through his myriad connections to right-wing evangelical groups. For so many people, it’s their first introduction to Creationism and pseudo-historian David Barton and Christian Nationalism. It’s bizarre to hear people react with virgin ears to the existence of Ark Encounter!
But one of the lesser-known aspects of his life, even to people familiar with white evangelical circles, is his “covenant marriage” to Kelly Johnson.
In 1997, in response to rising divorce rates, conservatives in Louisiana passed a law giving (straight) couples the option of a “covenant marriage.” In essence, this would be a marriage contract with stricter rules. Unlike the marriages of normal couples, it would be much harder to break this contract.
(More than anything, it was really just a way for conservative Christians to send a message to the country that their marriages were stronger than everyone else’s.)
Any couple who entered into such a contract would be required to go through pre-marital counseling. More importantly, they could only end their marriages if there was “adultery, abuse, abandonment or a lengthy separation.”
The Johnsons, who were married in 1999, were among the most prominent couples to get hitched under the new law. They were also two of its biggest proponents. And why not? Johnson was a law student who helped draft the law, and he worked with Christian hate group leader Tony Perkins, then a Louisiana legislator, to get it passed.
“In my generation, all we’ve ever known is the no-fault scheme, and any deviation from that seems like a radical move,” the then-28-year-old Johnson said of divorce. “Because so few people have chosen covenant marriage in Louisiana, it seems like an unpopular choice. It’s not unpopular. It’s just unknown. Once the message is out there, a whole lot more people will choose it.”
A whole lot more people did not, in fact, choose it.
As Slate noted, only two other states followed suit (Arizona in 1998 and Arkansas in 2001) and under 2% of married couples opted for the more stringent contract. Most couples were perfectly satisfied with their traditional marriage vows.
That didn’t stop the Johnsons from continuing to praise it with their Holier-Than-Thou attitudes:
… He told the AP he was trying to persuade all of his friends to convert their marriages. According to NOLA.com, the Johnsons became “the poster couple” for covenant marriage. Just a few months after the AP article, Mike and Kelly were on Good Morning America, talking to Diane Sawyer about being among the few such couples in the country. When Sawyer asked Kelly about her decision, Kelly, charming and smiling, made the idea seem romantic.
If it works for them, so be it. But there’s an obvious problem with this kind of “heightened” marriage contract: It assumes that people go into marriages with one foot already out the door. That’s not how it works. Most people take their marriage vows seriously, certainly at first. They have every intention of staying together for life. The fact that no-fault divorce is an option doesn’t bother them because they don’t believe they’ll need it.
But, of course, some people eventually do.
At that point, those covenant contracts just create a tougher obstacle for people looking to get out of really bad situations.
What if they were no longer happy?
What if the realized they were simply not compatible, sexually or emotionally (as so many couples who marry at a young age realize down the road)?
What if your beliefs—about politics, religion, life, or any other important topic—change and you come to regret your decision to marry your partner?
What if your allegations of physical or emotional abuse simply weren’t believed by government officials—or you were prevented, by threat or otherwise, from telling anyone about it?
Already, for instance, churches in Louisiana are organizing covenant marriage "weekends" devoted to couples who want to renew their wedding vows by taking advantage of the new marital option. That kind of encouragement from pastors, friends, relatives and, of course, fiancees could constitute a form of emotional blackmail, critics contend, in which a reluctant man or woman is pressured into a covenant marriage, and later resents it.
And as the children of divorced parents will often tell you, they were far better off after their parents ended their relationship than they were when the two unhappily co-existed. Remaining in a bad marriage is also awful for anyone trying to leave. It can lead to “depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.”
Again, it’s not that any of these people get married thinking about how to take the exit ramp. It’s that life happens. Situations change. When that happens, everyone is better off knowing there’s a way out, as difficult as it may be.
A covenant marriage might sound nice in theory, but it’s a horrible idea in practice. It’s especially dangerous in conservative Christian circles where Purity Culture norms often pressure people to get married young, before they really know each other and sometimes before they really even know themselves.
If you’re in a broken marriage, you shouldn’t have to wait for abuse or abandonment in order to move on. You shouldn’t have to air your personal laundry in a courtroom in order to get out. The option should be available to anyone who needs it. But just as with abortion rights, conservative Christians don’t want other people to make choices they may disapprove of. By creating a contract that sounds like a more serious marriage, who knows how many couples were trapped in a union they wished to escape? Johnson says his covenant marriage worked because his wife has “stayed with me this whole time.” The implication, however, is that she might have left had their marriage contract been a tad bit looser. That’s a marriage built on paperwork, not love.
All of this may be irrelevant. I don’t really care if the Johnsons chose a covenant marriage for themselves. Their life. Their decision. But if Republicans manage to win a governing trifecta in Washington next year, it’s possible a national version of this state law could emerge. Given all the ways Republicans have tried to control marriage over the years, opposing interracial marriage, refusing to protect same-sex marriage, allowing child marriage, making it harder to get divorced would be right up their alley. The irony that the potential president would be on his third marriage would be lost on them.
It’s not that anyone would be forced to sign a covenant contract if such a law passed. It’s that the sort of people pressured to sign it may be the same people who, one day, are most in need of a way to break free.