TAWN PARENT Commentary: It takes a village to save a marriage

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Divorce is a costly proposition-for families, for the courts, for business and for society. And it’s especially costly in Indianapolis. We have more divorced residents than any other major Midwestern city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As a result, companies suffer. Nationally, divorce costs companies an estimated $11 billion a year, according to the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Grief Recovery Institute, an educational foundation. Employees going through a divorce typically are confronting emotional, financial and legal challenges.

In surveys of top sources of stress, divorce usually ranks second only to the death of a spouse. Employees in the midst of divorce are more likely to be absent and distracted, incur stress-related medical expenses, have workplace accidents, and even steal from their employers. And if they have children, being a single parent may continue to affect their work long after the divorce is final.

Divorce puts a huge strain on our courts. Judges and other court personnel often report feeling overwhelmed by the volume of divorce cases, the emotional complexities of which they feel ill-prepared to handle, said Caryn Lennon, founder and CEO of Tucson, Ariz.-based Divorce Education Associates, a consulting and educational services firm.

Divorce also taxes social-service agencies and prisons. The vast majority of children who are homeless, runaways, high school dropouts or imprisoned come from homes without a father present. Many of these are children of divorce.

Single-parent families are much more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Nationally, 28 percent of households headed by a single woman and 13 percent of households headed by a single man live below the poverty line, according to 2003 census figures. The figure for households headed by married couples: 5 percent.

My intention is not to trash single parents or divorcés, but there’s no denying that divorce tears the fabric of our community, and the repercussions are felt for generations. So we all have a stake in seeing marriages succeed. And we can do much more than stand on the sidelines and wring our hands.

For example, a company may pay lip service to being “family-friendly” only to dump so much work on employees that they end up feeling married to their jobs rather than their spouses. Here are some things employers can do to support their workers’ marriages:

offer adequate vacation time and encourage employees to use it;

discourage employees from working excessive amounts of overtime;

subsidize marital and family counseling;

offer flex-time, part-time and work-at-home options; create and communicate a strict policy against infidelity in the workplace.

There are things we can do individually as well.

At my wedding, our minister said: “As a community of family and friends, we are called to rejoice in [the bride and groom’s] happiness, to help them when they have trouble, and to remember them in our prayers. Will you do everything in your power to uphold and care for these two people in their marriage?” And everyone said “I will.”

Many of us have made similar pledges at weddings. But do we keep our promises? Or are we too busy minding our own business? Our society is an independent one that prizes privacy. But we may become so intent on putting our hands over our ears that we don’t hear calls for help. Do we lend friends, family members and neighbors a listening ear when they mention marital problems? Do we present the opportunity for such confidences and pay attention to potential warning signs? Do we offer to keep the children once in a while so couples can have time alone together?

It is often forgotten today that marital problems do not have to mean divorce.

“The worst thing an employer can say to an employee considering divorce is, ‘Go to a lawyer,'” Lennon said. “That sends them down a path to litigation. It can be costly, time-consuming and destructive, and it causes problems in the workplace.”

Instead, she suggests that employers give employees a list of community resources and recommend reading books, attending seminars or seeking mediation.

Likewise, in our personal lives we should urge people to try to improve their marriages before jumping into divorce. I’m not suggesting that people be encouraged to stay in relationships that are abusive or otherwise doomed. For years, people were under tremendous pressure to stay in marriages at all costs. Those days belong in the past. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

The average U.S. wedding costs $26,000. The investment in a marriage multiplies exponentially from there. Trying to maximize that investment-for couples, children, the community and ourselves-is a responsibility shared by us all.

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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