For years, social conservatives have been fighting to prevent
certain people from getting married. But they're waging a parallel
battle, too: trying to keep married couples together.
In cooperation with the Family Research Council and the National
Organization for Marriage, socially conservative politicians have
been quietly trying to make it harder for couples to get divorced.
In recent years, lawmakers in more than a dozen states have
introduced bills imposing longer waiting periods before a divorce
is granted, mandating counseling courses or limiting the reasons a
couple can formally split. States such as Arizona, Louisiana and
Utah have already passed such laws, while others such as Oklahoma
and Alabama are moving to do so.
If divorces are tougher to obtain, social conservatives argue,
fewer marriages will end. And having more married couples is not
just desirable in its own right but is a social good, they say.
During his presidential campaign, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick
Santorum emphasized finishing high school and getting married as
cures for poverty. "If you do those two things, you will be
successful economically," he declared at a 2011 event in Iowa.
A legislative movement against divorce may seem like a non-
starter in a country where half of married couples avail themselves
of this right, but as with legal challenges to Obama-care and the
rise of the Tea Party movement, today's fringe idea can quickly
become tomorrow's mainstream conservatism.
Divorce has long been a cultural touchstone in America. Social
conservatives regularly advocate a return to a more traditional
system of divorce - namely that it be extraordinarily difficult to
get. For example, the only way an Alabamian could get a divorce
under the state's original 1819 constitution: "No decree for such
divorce shall have effect until the same shall be sanctioned by two-
thirds of both Houses of the General Assembly." Even a battered
wife - who, of course, couldn't vote - would have to petition her
all-male state legislature and get supermajority approval before
being freed from matrimony.
For most of American history, to obtain a divorce, one party had
to prove to a judge that the other party was at fault, meaning he
or she had committed certain grievous acts that irreparably harmed
the marriage, such as adultery or being convicted of a felony.
Emotional or physical abuse wasn't always enough; even adultery or
abandonment could be insufficient if a spouse reluctant to get
divorced convinced a judge that his or her partner was similarly
As historian Glenda Riley showed in her 1991 book "Divorce: An
American Tradition," loveless couples often found creative ways to
persuade judges to end their marriages: As recently as the 1950s,
some couples would stage a bust, complete with hotel room,
"mistress," photographer and private detective who would testify in
court about the husband's (or wife's) supposed illicit deeds.
This system began to crumble during the 1960s. In 1969,
California became the first state to legalize no-fault divorces -
permitting divorce without requiring proof of wrongdoing such as
adultery - in the Family Law Act signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Within a decade, 45 other states had joined California. By 1985, 49
states had legalized no-fault divorce; New York did just four years
No-fault divorce has been a success. A 2003 Stanford University
study detailed the benefits in states that had legalized such
divorces: Domestic violence dropped by a third in just 10 years,
the number of husbands convicted of murdering their wives fell by
10 percent, and the number of women committing suicide declined
between 11 percent and 19 percent. A recent report from Maria
Shriver and the Center for American Progress found that only 28
percent of divorced women said they wished they'd stayed married.
Yet the conservative push for "divorce reform" is finding
sympathetic ears in statehouses, where Republican lawmakers have
regularly introduced bills to restrict the practice. …