Divorce in the United States

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Divorce in the United States

Divorce involves the recognition that a marriage has hopelessly failed and that at least one of the partners has no desire to continue the marital relationship. Divorce legally dissolves a marriage, and permits the partners to remarry if they choose. Divorce differs from an annulment, which declares a marriage invalid because of some flaw in the contract.

The early American settlers brought with them three different views on divorce: 1) the Roman Catholic view that marriage was a sacrament and that there could be no divorce; 2) the English view that divorce was a legislative matter; and 3) the Protestant view that marriage and divorce were secular matters to be handled by the civil authorities.

The Constitution of the United States did nothing to limit the rights of the states to enact their own laws governing marriage and divorce. Despite several efforts to amend the Constitution, to allow Congress to pass federal legislation on divorce, to this day the states retain separate laws. Because divorce laws vary from state to state, the "migratory divorce" developed: couples would move temporarily to a state where divorce was easier to obtain than at home. For example, a couple living in New York State, where until 1967 the only grounds for divorce was adultery, would establish residence in Nevada - - a procedure that took only 6 weeks -- and file for divorce on grounds of mental cruelty.

Popular attitudes toward divorce changed as the United States became more urbanized and less religious. The increasing acceptance of divorce was reflected in court interpretations of existing laws and in new legislation enacted by the states. Two tendencies merged, making possible the establishment of new and easier grounds for divorce. The focus of state divorce, which previously concerned itself with specifying legal grounds for divorce, shifted to criteria concerning the breakdown of the marital relationship. This could be seen in conditions that allowed divorce for alcoholism, drug addiction, or nonsupport. Another tendency permitted divorce if both parties gave of voluntarily separating and living apart for a specified period of time. For example, in 1967, New York allowed divorce for couples who had been legally separated for 2 years, eliminating the search for a guilty party. In 1969, California permitted divorce when "irreconcilable differences" arose, thus becoming the first state with a "no-fault" divorce law. Nearly all the other states soon added no-fault divorce options to their existing laws.

Published statistics show that the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, and in recent decades it has held fairly steady. In 1975 the rate was 4.9 per 1,000 people (over twice that of Great Britain) and in 1990 it was 4.7 per 1,000. It is sometimes said that in the United States, for every four marriages, a divorce occurs. Divorce statistics, however, tend to be misleading. In 1990 about 2.4 million marriages took place in the United States and about 1.2 million divorces -- about one divorce occurred for every two marriages. It would be equally true, however, to say that 80 percent of all married people are still in their first marriage.

Statisticians speak of the "crude" divorce rate -- the number of divorces per 1,000 population. The crude divorce rate of 4.7 in 1990 in the United States may be compared with a crude marriage rate of 9.7 (9.7 marriages per 1,000 population). An even better measure is the number of marriages or divorces per 1,000 "population at risk," that is, the total number of persons who are in fact married at the time. In the United States in 1987, there were 123 divorced persons for every 1,000 married persons; in other terms, the divorced portion equaled about 12 percent of the married portion of the population.

When marriage and divorce rates in several countries several factors must be taken into account: the...
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