As family scholar Brad Wilcox writes, President Ronald Reagan said the greatest mistake he ever made was in 1969 when as governor of California he signed into law a bill creating no-fault divorce in his state. Indeed, California was the first state to adopt no-fault divorce, an action that then spread all across the United States.
What is no-fault divorce? It means that either person to a marriage can get a divorce from their spouse for any reason or no reason at all. Prior to the introduction of no-fault divorce, a person could get a divorce only if he or she could prove that their spouse had committed a “fault,” such as adultery, abandonment, physical abuse, or mental cruelty.
Because both common sense and experience clearly showed that marriage brings innumerable benefits to children, women, men, and society as a whole, the government had a strong interest in protecting marriage and preventing people from divorcing over minor matters. Significantly, over the past few decades research from all sides of the political spectrum has confirmed the wisdom of the past. For example, research clearly shows that children do best in a healthy intact married-parent family. Indeed, compared to children raised in married-parent families, children raised in single-parent, cohabitating, and step-families are significantly more likely, among other things, to:
- Suffer abuse and neglect;
- Do poorly in school, repeat a grade in school, and drop out of school;
- Commit crime and be a victim a crime;
- Live in poverty;
- Have mental health and substance abuse problems;
- Have lower-earning jobs as adults;
- Have a child out-of-wedlock; and
- Divorce as adults.
Likewise, research shows that marriage is also the best place for adults. Compared to adults who are single, divorced, or cohabiting, married adults are:
- Less likely to suffer domestic violence;
- Less likely to be victims of crime;
- Less likely to have emotional and mental health problems;
- More likely to have better health and live longer;
- More likely to have higher paying jobs and more household assets; and
- More likely to have better and more frequent sex.
Society as a whole also benefits when marriages are healthy and divorce is not widespread. In addition to the benefits of having its children and adults doing better when the institution of marriage is strong, society is also better off financially. A 2008 study found that the annual cost of family breakdown in the United States is at least $112 billion each year (more welfare benefits, more criminal justice expenses, more education expenses, fewer taxes paid by people who grew up in broken homes, etc.). Significantly, the study said it took a conservative approach and that the actual rate could in fact be much higher.
A much overlooked fact is that, in addition to the protecting the institution of marriage, a fault-based divorce regime gave extra protection to an innocent wife with a cheating husband who wanted to divorce her. Since the husband was committing the fault, not the wife, he would not be able to get a divorce on his own. Thus, if he wanted a divorce, he would have to negotiate with his wife, who would most likely get more assets and more income as a result. Now, however, a cheating husband can divorce his wife of 20 years with a court dividing up assets evenly, even though he was a fault, and income to the wife coming down to an inadequate bureaucratic formula. Indeed, one study has found that under the current no-fault system, women end up 27% poorer, and men ten percent richer, after a divorce.
Significantly, the claim that no-fault divorce was needed so women could leave abusive marriages was an outright lie. Under the fault-based system, abuse was always a ground for divorce.
So what was the effect of enacting no-fault divorce laws in America? As predicted at the time, these laws helped to usher in more divorce in America; indeed, they helped to double the divorce rate in the country. As Wilcox writes:
“The nearly universal introduction of no-fault divorce helped to open the floodgates, especially because these laws facilitated unilateral divorce and lent moral legitimacy to the dissolution of marriages…From 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled — from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women. This meant that while less than 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. And approximately half of the children born to married parents in the 1970s saw their parents part, compared to only about 11% of those born in the 1950s.”
Indeed, the United States has one of highest divorce rates in the world, almost 60% higher than the world average. And as result of this high rate, our children, our adults, and our society as a whole are suffering more. People always wonder why the United States, the richest country to have ever exited in the history of the world, has such high rates of crime, drug use, drug deaths, high school dropouts, suicide, and poverty. Family breakdown is a large part of the answer.
And what about the rates for members of the old Soviet Union (including Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine), which was the first modern state to adopt no-fault divorce in 1917? Six of the top ten countries in the world with the highest divorce rates are from the old Soviet Union, with Kazakhstan having a rate 170% higher than then world average, Russia with a rate 130% higher, and Ukraine with a rate 69% higher. So both former combatants of the 20th century Cold War have suffered the effects of no-fault divorce.
Seeing the catastrophe for the family and society as a whole that no-fault divorce brings in its wake, it seems insane that any country would now adopt such a system. Yet England and Wales, with divorce rates at the international average, did just that last week–and the results of the law are already worse than predicted. Indeed, in just the first week of the law divorce filings almost doubled. As reported by the Daily Mail:
“Divorce applications soared by almost half just a week after the ‘no fault’ law came in, figures showed yesterday. Around 3,000 couples have petitioned to end their marriages since the rules, which do not require couples to apportion blame, began in England and Wales last Wednesday. Lawyers said that this was almost 50 per cent more than in a typical week.”
While this surge will probably not continue, no doubt when things settle England and Wales will have a significantly higher divorce rate than before, probably approaching the levels of the United States (and hopefully not those of Kazakhstan or Russia). And more children, women, and men will suffer as a result in those countries.
Another two countries have tragically trod down the path of no-fault divorce, a path that always leads to more family disruption and more chaos. A path where everyone loses. Let’s hope that more countries do not follow England and Wales; our children and adults do not need to suffer any more.