50 Years of No-Fault Divorce Has Taken Its Toll

Marriage was badly damaged long before "progressives" demanded that it be redefined.

Brian Mark Weber · Sep. 6, 2019

There was a time in our country’s history when marriage vows were taken seriously. Sure, there was a process for married couples to divorce due to circumstances such as adultery or abuse. But ever since the late 1960s, when a counterculture that rejected traditional values in favor of immediate gratification brought significant change to family law and structure, married people haven’t needed a reason to abandon their spouse and their children.

How did we get to the point where a society founded on the strong bonds of marriage now casts them aside without a second thought?

In 1969, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce bill into law. At the time, Reagan thought the new law would alleviate the emotional and legal turmoil of divorce proceedings and improve the situation for all involved, including children. Other states followed California’s lead and, unfortunately, divorce rates skyrocketed in the following decades. Reagan later considered this to be his greatest political mistake, as noted in his son Michael Reagan’s book, The New Reagan Revolution.

On the surface, no-fault divorce seemed like a good idea. It was designed to address the problem of spouses who felt trapped in bad marriages or to protect them from the traumatic experience of having to prove fault in court.

“Many lawmakers who pushed for it had fine intentions,” Daniel Davis writes at The Daily Signal. “At the time, the divorce regime had become a sham that made a mockery of the legal system. Because a judge had to find ‘fault’ in one spouse to grant a divorce, spouses would often make phony allegations against each other, sometimes even working in tandem to fool a judge into granting them a divorce.”

Davis adds, “Obviously, this was a problem. Some lawyers called the trend ‘institutionalized perjury.’ They thought it would be much better to lower the barriers to divorce and thus remove the incentive to make phony allegations. Yet 50 years later, the perverse incentive to commit perjury seems utterly minuscule when compared with the wreckage that came from the divorce revolution.”

And the wreckage of that revolution is undeniable. Statistics show that about half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, and a significant number of children do not live with both natural parents. Sure, there’s no doubt that some of those kids escaped untenable situations in which one parent committed adultery or was a victim of spousal abuse. But what about the emotional and psychological impact on children whose parents opted to hastily throw in the towel? Millions of fatherless children are doing worse in school and in life, including committing far more crime. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of mass murderers are from fatherless homes.

Moreover, no-fault divorce makes it far too easy for married couples to break their vows, teaches young people that commitment is meaningless, and perpetuates a culture that devalues social bonds of all kinds.

Just as Roe v. Wade opened the floodgates and enabled a decaying society to disregard human life, no-fault divorce laws resulted in significantly higher divorce rates that continue to this day. And like Roe v. Wade, the law was simply a manifestation of the culture that produced it. The United Kingdom is now similarly poised to enact no-fault divorce by claiming the same “benefits” that its proponents expressed decades ago in the U.S.

And no-fault affects more than just traditional marriage. Beverly Willett writes in the Washington Examiner, “In its decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated the fundamental right to marriage and its sweeping benefits — everything from companionship and security to safeguarding children to tax, inheritance, health insurance and myriad other benefits. No-fault, however, renders these rights hollow. They must be forfeited without cause or compensation.”

Willett concludes, “The Supreme Court held that marriage forms a union greater than two persons and constitutes a ‘keystone of our social order.’ By definition, then, no-fault is anti-marriage, bestowing absolute power on the spouse who wants out for any reason whatsoever. It reduces the marriage contract to one terminable at will, making it no contract at all.”

The problem with broken marriages today is not the fault of Ronald Reagan or any other single politician. Ultimately, our self-centered culture is to blame. Which is why even the unlikely passage of new legislation to reverse the damaging effects of no-fault divorce would only be a small part of the solution. To truly fix the problem, we need to first fix our culture.

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