Republicans have been on quite a successful rampage against modern life: banning abortion, trying to make contraception harder to get, dumping books about race, sex, gender, and the Holocaust (the Holocaust?!) from school libraries, tormenting trans people. You’d think they’d take a break, but no—now they’ve set their sights on a new target: no-fault divorce. Leading the charge are Republican legislators in some of the worst states for women (looking at you, Louisiana!) and reactionary anti-feminist ranters like Ben Shapiro, Matt Walsh, and Steven Crowder. Fun story: Crowder went viral for portraying himself as a victim of no-fault divorce, expressing shock that his wife could divorce him without his permission even “in Texas”—shortly before a video emerged in which he berated his heavily pregnant wife for, among other domestic failings, not being “wife-worthy.” Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour!
I mention the great 17th-century poet, today known mostly for his epic poem Paradise Lost, because he was one of the first—if not the first—English writer to call for marriage to be not a religious sacrament enforced by church and state but a civil partnership that unhappy spouses could end at will. (Milton knew whereof he spoke: He himself married 17-year-old Mary Powell, whom he barely knew, when he was 34; she left him some weeks later and stayed away for three years.) In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) and three subsequent tracts, he argued passionately in favor of divorce on grounds of simple incompatibility: Where there was no love or friendship, the marriage was already dead. Forcing unhappy partners to stay married prevented them from finding more suitable mates, and it substituted church authority for independent rights of conscience. “Wisdom and charity, weighing God’s own institution, would think that the pining of a sad spirit wedded to loneliness should deserve to be freed,” he wrote.
It isn’t clear how much of this freedom Milton would have extended to wives. Still, it was a start. But it would take more than three centuries for unhappy spouses to win the freedom to end a marriage without proving infidelity, abuse, or similar against their partners. The first no-fault-divorce legislation in an American state was signed only in 1969—by none other than conservative icon Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California. It’s now the law in every state, although Mississippi and South Dakota require two-party consent.
Who benefits from easy access to divorce? Everyone, I’d argue, including children, often cited as the reason parents should be forced to stay together—because what can be better for healthy development than growing up in a household full of bitterness, rage, and disrespect? Women have the most at stake, though, because women are more vulnerable to men than vice versa. Even in the 19th century, when divorce was hard to get and few women could support themselves, women filed the majority of divorce petitions in the US; today, it’s more than two-thirds. (Jordan Peterson says it’s because women are more neurotic than men, always looking on the negative side. Well, given the sexist nature of most marriages, where women still do most of the housework and child care, they’ve got a lot to be negative about.)
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Researchers who followed the long state-by-state rollout of no-fault divorce found that in every case it led to dramatic decreases in suicide among wives, domestic violence, and murders of wives by their husbands. Those insufficiently acknowledged facts effectively prove that controlling women is what’s behind calls to get rid of no-fault divorce, because if women’s lives and safety mattered, divorce would always have been easy to get. In 2019, Jim Daly, the head of Focus on the Family, which opposes no-fault divorce, told unhappy couples that “God hates divorce in every case,” even when there’s violence, cruelty, addiction, pedophilia. (The wife is supposed to fix the marriage by being superdeferential, blaming herself, and giving her husband lots of sex.)
Who wants this? Who needs this? There’s a real-life experiment that measures the popularity of Daly’s position. In Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona, engaged couples can sign up for a “covenant marriage,” in which they agree to seek divorce only for adultery, abuse, or a handful of semi-criminal activities. Despite a quarter-century of its existence as an option, only about 1 percent of couples choose it. The Bible may be all for covenants, but even among evangelicals, not many parents would want their adult child trapped forever in a loveless marriage to a terrible person. (The divorce rate for born-again Christians is 33 percent, by the way—higher than the rate for atheists and agnostics, 30 percent, according to 2008 research by the Barna group.)
For right-wing Christians and Hungarian-style conservative nationalists, both divorce and abortion represent social decay. Families should pray together and stay together, with the woman firmly under the man’s thumb. People sometimes call this gender authoritarianism “populism”—a nearly meaningless term that progressives are always trying to claim for themselves—but it’s a power play by a minority skilled at working the levers of government. At a London gathering last May of a US-based group called National Conservatism, the Tory MP Miriam Cates claimed that the UK’s biggest problem was its low birth rate. Among the culprits: “cultural Marxism,” too much education, high taxes, a housing shortage—and no-fault divorce. Does she really believe couples forced to stay married will have more kids? (I can’t stand you, darling, now dim the lights and pour us each a glass of wine!)
I’d like to believe this crusade against no-fault divorce is the pet project of a few cranks. Most people don’t want to be miserable, even right-wing fanatics. Kellyanne Conway, Lauren Boebert, Sarah Palin, and Marjorie Taylor Greene have each recently gotten divorced, after all. For them, as for their circus master, Donald Trump, divorce is part of the fabric of life. On the other hand, legal abortion was part of the fabric of life too. Until it wasn’t.