The United States has consistently led the world in the number of marriages each year, with a marriage rate roughly twice as high as those in other industrialized countries. It has also consistently led the world in the divorce rate. During the 1960s, the divorce rate in the United States began to climb rapidly. In 1960, there were nine divorces for every thousand married women; by 1970, the number had shot up to fifteen per thousand. Divorces peaked in 1980 at twenty-three per thousand and have since leveled off at twenty-one per thousand married women in the early 1990s.
Concerned about the country’s high divorce rate, clergy, academics, sociologists, politicians, and others have called for measures to slow it down. One proposal is to return to fault-based divorce, which was the law of the land prior to 1969. Divorce then was granted only in specific circumstances, generally limited to infidelity, physical or mental cruelty, or desertion. Couples who wished to divorce had to prove in court that one spouse was solely responsible for the breakdown of the marriage. Only the innocent party was allowed to sue for divorce, thus ensuring that all divorces granted were consented to by both spouses. If one spouse did not want a divorce and was not guilty of any transgression, a divorce would not be granted. If both partners were found guilty of fault, they were deemed to deserve each other and no divorce was granted.
California’s no-fault divorce statute, signed into law in 1969 by thengovernor Ronald Reagan, started a cultural revolution that saw forty-four states adopting no-fault divorce within the next five years, and all fifty states adopting it by 1984. With the advent of no-fault divorce, married couples did not have to prove who was responsible for the broken marriage. A divorce could be granted based solely on incompatibility or the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.
Opponents of no-fault divorce contend that the relaxed rules concerning divorce are behind the nation’s high divorce rate. When a divorce is easy to obtain, they claim, it is easier to dissolve a marriage than it is to try to repair it. No-fault divorce foes cite a 1995 study in the Journal of Marriage and the Family that found that the divorce rate increased between 15 and 25 percent in the three years following the adoption of nofault divorce laws.
No-fault divorce also allows one spouse to dissolve a marriage at any time for any reason—or for no reason at all—regardless of the wishes of the other spouse, opponents assert. The ability to make such a unilateral decision abrogates the marriage contract, contends Lenore Weitzman, author of The Divorce Revolution. She maintains that no-fault divorce transforms marriage into a “time-limited contingent arrangement rather than a lifelong commitment.” No-fault divorce laws also give all the power to the spouse who wants to get divorced, she asserts, thus “elevat[ ing] one’s ‘right’ to a divorce over a spouse’s ‘right’ to remain married.” What society must do, Weitzman concludes, is return to the strengths of fault-based divorce, in which the law protects the spouse who remains true to the marriage contract rather than blessing the one who wants to break it.
Supporters of no-fault divorce argue that changing the law will not necessarily lower the number of divorces. As Hanna Rosin writes in the May 6, 1996, issue of the New Republic, “Correlation does not prove causation.” She maintains that the American divorce rate has been rising since the 1800s and almost doubled between 1960 and 1970, years before most states had adopted no-fault divorce laws. “The sudden spike in the three years following the reform came from a backlog of cases,” Rosin claims, and was merely a response to changes in America’s culture brought on by the sexual revolution. Returning to fault-based divorce would not result in a lower divorce rate or make marriages last longer, she contends.
In addition, a return to fault-based divorce would hurt the families it is trying to protect, no-fault supporters argue. According to Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce and director of the marriage and family-therapy program at the University of Southern California, “When one spouse must prove the other to be ‘at fault,’ divorce becomes a pitched battle between adversaries who each must prove the other committed adultery, spousal abuse or child abuse or destroyed the home. . . . Anger escalates and continues for years or decades following the divorce.” Furthermore, she contends, litigation in fault-based divorces harms the children who are forced to watch their parents battle in a long, vicious war. No-fault divorce reduces the acrimony, she maintains, and provides a “civilized arena in which marriage can be terminated while parents continue to be parents.”
The impact that changing divorce laws would have on the divorce rate is debatable. Both sides of the no-fault divorce issue recognize the importance of marriage and family; however, each believes its approach to divorce is the best way to preserve the family and protect both the parents and the children. Marriage and Divorce: Current Controversies examines this issue as well as the debate over whether divorce is harmful, whether divorce laws and child custody should be reformed, whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, and how marriage can be strengthened.