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A covenant marriage is a marriage which can only be dissolved in some very specific circumstances. Such marriages are offered as an alternative to traditional marriage for people who wish to enter into a more binding pact with their partner. Although many people associate covenant marriage with religious beliefs, especially conservative Christianity, a couple does not need to be religious in order to enter into such an agreement.
The concept of covenant marriage first began to be discussed around the middle of the 20th century. Some people felt that many societies were moving toward a freer attitude about marriage, allowing people to easily marry and divorce. It was felt that this undermined the institution of marriage, and that it weakened family and social ties. Advocates for covenant marriage argued that marriage is far more than a contract, and that people who wished to should have the option of having a covenant marriage to indicate the depth of their commitment to each other.
Before a couple can receive a covenant marriage, they must have counseling, which must be documented with an affidavit. Counseling can be provided by a religious officiant or secular counselor. The counselor talks with the couple about marriage, helps them explore whether or not they are right for each other, and asks the couple to genuinely think about whether or not they are willing to commit to each other for life. After counseling, the couple signs an oath indicating that they are entering into a covenant marriage after much thought, a marriage license is granted, and the marriage ceremony can be performed.
People in a covenant marriage are expected to pursue any means possible to make the marriage work before they sue for divorce. This can include counseling, temporary separations, and other measures. The court cannot grant a no-fault divorce to people in a covenant marriage. If abandonment occurs, the couple lives separately for more than two years, one partner is abusive, a partner uses drugs, or a partner is convicted of a felony, the court can grant a divorce. Likewise, if both partners indicate that they would like the marriage to end, the court can grant a dissolution.
In the United States, several states have laws on the books permitting covenant marriages. This type of marriage should not be entered into lightly, as it is difficult to dissolve. Counseling provides opportunities for both partners to understand the nature of the commitment and to refuse if they feel that it is not right for them. Some critics of covenant marriage believe that an element of coercion may be involved in some cases, however, and that partners may feel forced into such a marriage in some situations.