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Published February 18 2013

Forum editorial: Mandated counseling won’t help

Requiring a couple going through divorce to submit to six months of state-mandated counseling is an unnecessary intrusion of government into a personal matter. A bill in the North Dakota Legislature is yet another example of an attempted misuse of government power by a legislative body that allegedly favors government that is smaller, more efficient and less prone to regulation of lives and businesses. However, a perusal of bills in the hopper suggests this Legislature in particular wants to extend the long and clumsy hand of government into the most personal, most private matters North Dakotans deal with.

Such as divorce.

The stated intention of the bill (co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, and Rep. Naomi Mucsha, D-Enderlin) is to protect children from the trauma of divorce. That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not realistic. Divorces that involve children rarely benefit children, although ending a marriage because of physical or mental abuse might be the best option for children.

Nonetheless, there is no credible evidence that six months or eight months or a year of forced counseling can make significant differences in the outcome of a divorce or the welfare of children. In fact, extending the process between two spouses at war for reasons each believes are good could be more harmful than getting it done quickly, cleanly and fairly.

The legislation’s unstated intent suggests a kind of social engineering by lawmakers and others who seem to believe government-mandated counseling (expensive, to be sure) will reduce the state’s divorce rate. That’s not likely in a state with a relatively low divorce rate. Furthermore, couples with the resources and determination will leave the state to obtain a divorce rather than submit to a counseling order, leaving North Dakota couples of modest means to be victimized by the government decree.

One group supporting the legislation, the North Dakota Family Alliance, said the mandate is appropriate because the state issues marriage licenses and divorce decrees. If that’s a valid argument (doubt it), then a marriage license should require a couple to stay together – let’s say – for three years if there are no children and for 10 years if there are kids. If the state’s vested interest is so important, should not a license reflect that factor?

Silly, right? Certainly as silly as a well-intentioned but misguided counseling directive. Government cannot make divorce “better.” Government should not intrude on a personal, private and often heart-breaking matter. Leave it alone. Allow couples to consult with lawyers, family, clergy and yes, a counselor, if that’s their choice. Their choice.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.