The history of divorce is a long one. It has, as French philosopher Voltaire put it, likely been around since the advent of formalized marriage. While Voltaire may have referred to the susceptibility of marriage to collapse even in a loving union, divorce also applies to the legal dissolution that has resulted from disagreements amongst couples over the years in the Western world.
Legal divorce began as early as the sixteenth century in Europe as a firm rejection by Protestant leaders against Catholic institutions, such as marriage. And while the Protestants supported the legal proceedings of divorce and claimed that Catholic divorce-equivalents, such as annulments that were primarily used to break off bigamous relationships, were easy to obtain, very few married couple ever filed for divorce or annulments. Soon after, however, the granting of divorce began emerging from secular sources of power in Switzerland and later the U.K. The cases for divorce during this time were based on some fault of the defendant, though the guidelines were described in religious terms, such as from the Bible.
In America, the fault-based process of divorce remained mostly intact when the colonists arrived. A complete divorce-while necessary to prevent the moral complications of separated-but-married status-was possible, but very hard to get. As the 13 colonies became the 50 United States, the grounds for divorce had to be concrete, which enabled the ostensibly innocent or injured party to get relief in the form of the actual divorce. The reasons included desertion, adultery, regular inebriation and impotence, as well as the classic cruel and abusive treatment. While it was in the interest of the state to sustain marriages, the plaintiff had to come up with solid reasoning even when both parties wanted the divorce. It essentially had to be presented as a fight or fault-based case.
Around the mid-1950s in the U.S. several court rulings and state laws clearly recognized the many instances of no-fault reasons to end marriages. These included long-term separation, instances of incompatibility and loss of sanity. In practical terms, though, no-fault legislation was hard to use to actually provide a divorce for couples. It seemed that attorneys and judges were still driven by social mores that established the finality of marriage. Couples seeking divorce and their lawyers still had to fabricate their cases in a way that applied to established grounds most of the time. Ironically, as more people became married more than once in their lifetime and divorce was seen as less morally compromised, judges and attorneys had to sustain the fault-based divorce system to expedite the divorces easily.
Many states had many different reasons for divorce, from clear-cut adultery to major physical abuse. Some, however, were limited to just a few finite grounds, as in such East Coast states as Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and others. For this reason, many couples seeking divorces would travel to other states, typically out West to a divorce refuge like Nevada or California, to gain their divorce. Many of these places, it must be added, made for easy and virtually instant marriages, too, like Las Vegas. When the divorce became legal, the couple would return to their original state to proceed with their now separate lives as usual. The trends were recognized by legislators, however, in states like New York, whereby a couple could travel to Mexico, live there just 24 hours and legally file for a divorce that would be recognized back in New York. They also recognized that those who had no means to leave the country for their divorces needed their rights protected, as well.
Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that the U.S. instituted no-fault divorces that were easily obtainable. The U.S. took the cue from the U.K., which spearheaded divorce reform legislature. Judges in the U.K. could simply issue a divorce decree when a couple’s marriage was clearly irreparably damaged. California soon recognized the success of this approach and enacted its own law soon after. Laws like the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act soon spread across the country.
This method of divorce has been criticized by those who see that attorneys and judges may drag their feet because the grounds are so simple and open-ended, thus causing major family, employment and financial disruption amongst all of the parties involved. It has also been said that this kind of simple divorce has broken important bonds, and will continue to compromise the institution of the family.
In the contemporary U.S., the rate of divorce peaked in the 1980s almost one half of all marriages ending in dissolution. Many now say that it is not so much the laws granting easy divorce that have enabled so many to break apart their formal relationships, but several other reasons, such as increased women’s earning power, greater acceptance of divorce and-most prominently-the desire for “the pursuit of happiness,” in this case the ability to find a better spouse.
Typically, in the course of a divorce, an ex-husband will pay his ex-wife alimony for a discrete length of time. There are some states, however, that permit the reversal of that arrangement if the woman is the major breadwinner. If the couple has any children, custody can go to either or both parents, with visitation and custody settled between the parties as part of the divorce agreement.
Ultimately, divorce may be a necessary event for some to make the remainder of their lives reasonable and happy for all involved. When divorce becomes a possibility in your life, it is always best to enlist the aid of an attorney versed in comprehensive family and divorce law.