By Laura Chesley
It was 1973, deep into the uproar and chaos of the sexual revolution. The winds had begun to shift concerning marriage and families; it was time to hurl the historic chains of domination by men to the ground and take control of personal destiny. Equal Rights was the call sign for every self-respecting feminist and Jimmie was one of them. She gloried in having a name that belonged to men and enjoyed the discord between the name and her bra-less body. She wore the garment of self-fulfillment proudly, proclaiming her right to do as she pleased with her body and her life. The fact that she was married, and had children, wasn’t really an issue. She was determined to shed the oppression of the ages by doing just as she pleased.
At that time her marriage was unsatisfying and her husband, boring. The excitement was gone and what was left was comfortable, but dull. She and her husband had moved to another state only a year earlier, in search of greener grass and brighter rainbows. What she found was the same monotony she’d left in the previous state. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, though, she was considering a quick divorce – severing the ties to her husband without any accusation of wrong doing or fault – and moving on to those greener pastures she’d hoped to find a year before. Surely they were out there.
The History of No-fault Divorce
Prior to 1969 divorce laws required that there be a reason for a marriage to be dissolved. There were a number of legal reasons allowed: adultery, abandonment, drug abuse, neglect, criminal conviction or even mental illness, among others and depending on the state the couple resided. Divorce was a civil process in court, similar to bringing a lawsuit against another person; it required proof and the determination to see it through to the end. It often wasn’t pleasant, but it was an effective brake on ending a relationship too quickly.
In 1969, Ronald Reagan, a staunch social conservative, signed a ‘no-fault’ divorce bill into law in the state of California. He was the first. Many states would soon follow in California’s footsteps, to the unfortunate demise of many marriages. Within approximately 15 years nearly every state had some form of no fault divorce. California has always prided itself about being progressive and forward thinking; they have a long history of blazing the trail to greater innovation – socially and economically – but this was a social experiment that has failed.
The Whys of No-Fault Divorce
There were many ideas behind no-fault divorce at the time, but one in particular was the main driver: no fault divorce was meant to make the process of divorce easier and less hostile. If no one had to prove the other at fault, it would make the whole break up less messy, less antagonistic, less expensive, and easier on everyone, including children. There was even the idea of a good divorce that floated around certain parts of society. Surely children would be better off with parents who were no longer angry, bitter people. The legacy of no-fault divorce includes individuals left wondering what happened to their marriage, as they watch their spouse leave them high and dry without firm reasons and with little to no accountability. The acrimony associated with divorce did not go away; it simply moved into lengthy custody battles and rancor over asset distribution. No-fault divorce has been a gift to divorce lawyers and the negative impact to children has been incalculable.
During the 1960s and ‘70s the United States experienced a deep social change. The post World War II baby boom generation was growing up in relative prosperity and peace, and given the sexual revolution, relationships were more fluid. It was more about being true to yourself than settling down to raise family – with all the responsibility and duty that entailed. If someone was unhappy, then it was time for a change of scenery or job or relationship – even if that meant divorcing. These feelings of entitlement – to happiness, fulfillment, and contentment – permeated popular culture and made the idea of ending an unsatisfying marriage just another step on the way to finding oneself.
The Result After 46 Years
Marriages still end in acrimony. Children are still affected by parents who take every opportunity to fight and argue; divorce does not end the contact the parents have with each other. Relationship problems that existed during the marriage continue after the divorce, with the only real remedy being limited contact and emotional maturity.
No-fault divorce solved few problems, but it created many. Before no-fault laws, many women were awarded full custody of the children, ownership of the family home, and alimony. But with the push for equality with the Equal Rights Amendment, newly minted no-fault divorce laws made those economic cushions less commonplace and many newly single mothers found themselves living in poverty. That trend continues today.
What Can Be Done?
Michael J. McManus, president of Marriage Savers, has written about three ways of reforming no-fault divorce laws. They are not perfect solutions, but a good start:
- Divorcing couples with minor children would be required to have mutual consent to the divorce. One spouse should not have the ability to end a marriage with children on his or her own.
- A legislative act that is already currently being looked at in twelve states would require that divorcing parents participate in a marriage education course and wait a year before filing formally for the divorce.
- States would identify a parent who is committed to saving the marriage as the “responsible spouse” and award half to two thirds custody of the children and as much as 100 percent of the family’s economic assets.
There may be another way to overcome the negative affects of no-fault divorce laws, but it is relatively new. Three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana) have created a legally distinct type of marriage. In Arizona the requirement is a statement that must contain three things:
- A specific proscribed statement acknowledging that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, proof that the couple has participated in premarital counseling, and the signatures of both people, witnessed by a court clerk.
Covenant marriage statutes don’t ensure that marriages will last, but it is an attempt to roll back some of what’s happened since no-fault divorce laws changed the landscape. It is worth a try.
I am the daughter of Jimmie. She was successful in getting her much-wanted, no-fault divorce from my father, but never found the greener pastures. The easy come, easy go siren call of marriage and divorce was a sham. There were no perfect men, or marriages for that matter, out there. She is currently married to her fifth husband, though this one will most likely be the last. The entitlement attitude has faded, replaced by a marriage in its 16th year. Her life is filled with predictability and general comfort, the best to be had now that she’s in her 70s. It’s been a long road, this path she’s trod, in the search for herself. Unfortunately, her choices left broken hearts and homes in her wake, but the tide has turned – she’s learned and settled down. It appears she has finally come to understand that there are no short cuts to finding happiness.
Laura Chesley is a wife, mother and grandmother. She is currently a student at BYU-Idaho majoring in Marriage & Family Studies. She anticipates graduating in July 2015 and beginning the Masters in Social Work program at Arizona State University in August. She and her husband, Phil, have been married 31 years and enjoy being grandparents to 7 amazing young people.