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Firms, churches should take bigger role in saving marriages

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As every ballplayer preparing for opening day knows, the game of baseball revolves around home. Pitchers try to throw the ball over home plate. Batters try to hit home runs. Runners try to make it home safely. And fans root, root, root for the home team.

Apparently, baseball's preoccupation with home is no accident. A research study by Denver University psychologist Howard Markman shows that the average divorce rate in cities that have a major league baseball team is 28 percent lower than in cities that lack a major league franchise.While Markman insists this finding is just a coincidence, his research does raise a rather intriguing question: What geographic differences do exist in divorce rates?

Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question is to think not of baseball but of another warm weather accompaniment -- bathing suits. Strangely enough, the divorce rate of any place in the continental United States can be reliably predicted by knowing the number of days out of the year that women there can wear swimsuits.

Generally, the more warm weather days suitable for bathing attire, the higher the divorce rate; the more cold weather days unsuitable for swimwear, the lower the divorce rate.

To illustrate, draw a line across the midsection of the continental United States (along the northern border of North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and continue through southern Nevada and central California). More than 60 percent of the total U.S. population lives above what might be called "the tan line." Yet less than half of all divorces occur here, and all of the 10 states with the lowest divorce rates are above the tan line.

In fact, believe it or not, Sen. Ted Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts is No. 1 in marital stability. Donald Trump's New York follows close behind. Conversely, almost all of the states with the highest divorce rates are found below the tan line. And four of these states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- are located right in the heart of the Bible belt.

The irony here, of course, is that the Bible is hardly neutral on the subject of divorce. The Old Testament prophet Malachi reports that God "hates divorce." And in the New Testament, Jesus condemns divorce "for any reason except sexual immorality" (Matthew 5:32).

In truth, the National Institute for Healthcare Research says weekly churchgoers throughout the United States are less apt to divorce than people who claim "no religion" and those who attend religious services less than once a week. Devout Catholics have especially low divorce rates -- apparently because Catholic parishes often take the responsibility of marriage preparation and enrichment more seriously than Protestant churches do.

Thus, one of the reasons for the relatively low divorce rates in the Northeast and Midwest is because these regions tend to have a higher concentration of Catholics than do other geographic areas.

University of Texas sociologist Norval Glenn says another factor affecting regional differences in divorce is "social rootedness."

His research shows that people who live in stable communities are less apt to divorce because they are more likely to be enmeshed in an inter-generational social network that helps them evaluate potential mates, offers them marital advice, support and expects them to work through any domestic problems that may arise.

Thus, the Sun Belt's higher divorce rates are due in part to the fact that this region has more social instability than less-transient areas in the Northeast and Midwest.

In many ways, it is too bad that America's divorce problem isn't attributable to the absence of professional baseball. Because it would be far easier to expand the number of professional baseball teams than to make the kind of changes needed to dramatically reduce the number of divorces in America.

But if we are serious about strengthening marriages in this country -- and we should be -- then we should be encouraging churches to make marriage preparation, enrichment and restoration a high priority.

We should be imploring businesses to reduce the volume of forced geographic transfers and job-related travel. And we should be helping couples to see that divorce rarely solves problems -- it usually just exchanges one set of problems for another.

Obviously, changing cultural attitudes about divorce will not be easy. But a nation that still fondly remembers "old school" ballplayers such as Joltin' Joe DiMaggio -- and still cherishes historic ballparks such as Chicago's Wrigley Field -- ought to be able to regain its commitment to the time-honored ideal of lifelong marriage.

We ought to be able to renew our appreciation for the idea that "diamonds are forever." We ought to be able to find our way home.

William R. Mattox Jr., a Virginia writer, serves on the board of Marriage Savers, a national organization that promotes marriage preparation, enrichment and restoration. To e-mail a response to this article, write: bmattox@earthlink.net