The Anti-Divorce Revolution: The Debate on Marriage Takes a Surprising Turn
The Weekly Standard, March 2, 1998
Town & Country, a glossy magazine for the well-heeled, touted a special feature in its January issue: "T&C's Guide to Civilized Divorce." Placed just before photos of society newlyweds in the monthly "Weddings" section, the guide highlights how to choose the right attorney, minimize costs, and spare the children mental anguish. The 16-page insert even includes a compilation of America's top divorce lawyers, complete with their professional nicknames: "Your Worst Nightmare," "The Hired Gun" and "The Stealth Bomber." Readers of slick magazines may be interested in the mode of divorce, but the rest of the country is far more concerned about its rate. One fact is well known: Every year since 1975, over one million marriages in the United States have ended in divorce. What is less well known is that grass-roots efforts to reduce the divorce rate are springing up across the country. Little by little, an anti-divorce movement is gathering steam. State legislators are considering reform of no-fault divorce laws. Churches and synagogues are working with couples to hold marriages together. Marriage education, as opposed to traditional marriage therapy, is gaining popularity. New research challenges the rationale behind divorce "for the children's sake," and analysts are arguing for new attitudes toward marriage and the family. These scattered battles add up to an undeclared but unmistakable war on divorce. The legislative flank of this many-faceted movement concentrates on rolling back "no-fault" divorce. First passed in 1969 by the California legislature and signed into law by then-governor Ronald Reagan, no-fault divorce was eventually adopted in every state. It made a clean break with a past in which proof of fault -adultery, cruelty, criminal conviction, desertion, addiction, and so on- was always required. Under pure no-fault laws, a spouse who wants out is relieved of the necessity of proving that his or her partner is to blame for some fundamental breach of the marriage contract: In effect, either spouse can end a marriage unilaterally. A husband or wife has only to declare that the marriage is "irrevocably broken" or that the couple has developed "irreconcilable differences" and a divorce will be granted, usually after a waiting period. The law thus sides with the spouse who would dissolve the marriage contract, rendering a spouse who contests a divorce essentially powerless. Only 14 states have pure no-fault systems; the others have hybrids. In Pennsylvania, for example, a couple can choose either fault-based or no-fault divorce. An uncontested no-fault divorce is granted in 90 days, but if one spouse contests, a two-year separation is required before a no-fault divorce can take place. Originally, no-fault laws were meant to make divorce less traumatic and more honest. Fault-based divorce required proof of bad behavior on someone's part, and the proof was often concocted by parties eager to separate. Another goal of the reformers was equality. According to Lenore Weitzman, author of The Divorce Revolution, no-fault laws were intended "to effect equal treatment for men and women by abolishing the sex-based assumptions of the traditional law" regarding matters like alimony and custody. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture, places the rapid spread of no-fault in the context of the 1970s embrace of individualism and self-actualization. "With the advent of expressive divorce," she writes, "the argument for regulating divorce collapsed." As a result, the marriage contract became less binding. No-fault enabled men and women to escape horrific marriages--and it allowed them to abandon average ones as well. The number of broken marriages climbed, as divorce-on-demand became standard. True, divorce rates were rising before the birth of the no-fault nation, which leads no-fault...
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