Tightening the Knot: Convinced That Single-Parent Families Are Bad for Everyone, Some Lawmakers Want to End No-Fault Divorce

Article excerpt

ELISE STREVEL SAYS SHE NEVER wanted a divorce. She was six weeks pregnant and happy in her marriage. But when her husband returned from a trip in 1994 and said he wanted out, she says, "My hands were tied. There was nothing I could do." Under Michigan's no-fault divorce law, her husband didn't need her consent and didn't need to show grounds. After a six-month "cooling off" period, mandatory in cases involving kids, he was gone. She still doesn't know why. "When I got married, it was for life," says Strevel, now raising 14-month-old Tyler. "But with no-fault divorce, that didn't mean anything. If divorce is so easy, why ever get married?"

Strevel's story and others like it are fueling a growing movement to end or reform no-fault divorce law. In the war over "family values," this may be the next battlefield. Alarmed over the one in four kids now living in single-parent homes, legislators are assailing a basic tenet of modern divorce law: that keeping people in unhappy marriages harms children and adults alike. This week, possibly on Valentine's Day, Michigan state Rep. Jessie Dalman expects to introduce a set of bills ending no-fault for contested cases involving children and pushing couples to undergo counseling before getting married. Similar legislation is up for debate in Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Though none of the bills are yet near passage, the issue has caught fire among feminists, religious groups, men's advocates, lawyers and the Americans whose first marriages--up to half--are projected to end in divorce. It is a neat irony that the battle is spear-headed by conservatives calling for less freedom in people's private lives. But support goes beyond just Republicans and religious groups. A recent poll conducted by the Family Research Council found that 55 percent of Americans favor making it harder to leave a marriage when one partner wants to stay together. As William Galston, a former domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton, observes, "We have had a great social experiment for the last 40 years, shifting in the direction of autonomy, choice, personal happiness and fulfillment, and away from responsibility and sacrifice. We are now asking ourselves whether the experiment was a success or failure. There has been a huge sea change [against no-fault], in the last six months." In her best seller, "It Take a Village," Hillary ham Clinton concedes that she is "ambivalent about no-fault divorce with no waiting period when children are involved." Her husband, at his national prayer breakfast Feb. 1, suggested that "It maybe that it ought to be a little harder to get a divorce where children are involved." Though marital law is reserved to the states, this is a rich issue for the Clintons; unlike Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm, for example, they've kept their first marriage together.

The no-fault revolution began in 1969, in response to a decade of rising divorce rates. Ronald Reagan, then governor of California--and himself divorced - signed the first major no-fault bill. Up until then, spouses had to prove that the other had done wrong, which usually meant adultery, abuse or abandonment. Couples desperate to get away from each other lied in court or hired private detectives to spy on one another. Reagan's no-fault bill was designed to reduce the acrimony and shenanigans. It allowed partners who both wanted out to split amicably; even if one contested the divorce, the other could get it without asserting wrongdoing. Within about a decade, every state except New York followed California's lead.

The results' critics are now saying, have been disastrous. A recent University of Oklahoma study found that in the three years after no-fault, divorce rates in 44 of 50 states jumped. Much attention has been paid to the pathologies associated with unwed motherhood, but nearly twice as many kids are living in single-parent homes because of divorce. "We've created a whole class of people in poverty--divorced women with children," says Georgia state Rep. …