Divorce is legal? When did that happen?

Thanks to one of my readers, I just learned something fascinating about American history. You know how if something is legal today we assume it has always been that way? Well divorce is relatively newly legal in our country! Especially no-fault divorce, meaning either party could walk away for any reason. The modern concept of a divorce varies by culture and religion, but early forms of divorce were almost always only if the husband wanted it. I remember when I lived in Taiwan in the early 1980s, only men could choose divorce and then only he had all the power to decide whether to keep the kids or not. He usually only kept them if they were male.

The first recorded divorce in the American colonies was that of Anne Clarke and her husband Denis Clarke of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on January 5, 1643. The divorce was granted by the Quarter Court of Boston, MA on the grounds that Denis Clarke abandoned his wife to be with another woman.

If your marriage broke up in the 1750s, you had to obtain a private Act of Parliament—essentially, an exception to Britain’s draconian divorce law—to formally divorce. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so wife-selling arose as a form of faux divorce.

Until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, it was essentially impossible to obtain a divorce in the U.S., no matter how bad the marriage or how cruel one’s husband. A couple could only be divorced by the passage of a private act through Parliament, a remedy available only to the very wealthy.

If you wanted a divorce in the early 1900s, you had to prove your significant other had committed adultery, abused, or abandoned you. By 1916, the U.S. led the world in number of divorces and in 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. North Carolina that other states had to recognize divorces, under the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution. It wasn’t even until the late 1960s that Americans were allowed no-fault divorces.

If there was divorce in your own family history, like mine, the family was usually quite secretive about it. And as we all know, secrecy usually equals shame in our culture. In my family, who were basically Southern Baptist farmers in the Kansas City area in the early 1900s, I can think of three family secrets that my Mom had to really dig for when she decided to do our full genealogical history: divorce, marrying someone of the Jewish faith and severe mental illness.

My own 2001 Colorado divorce was quite quick and painless. We never had to show up in court because the filing was uncontested, meaning we were not fighting over assets and we had no children. We just filled out some forms, paid $99 and we were done. No muss no fuss, except for a few hurt feelings and the various biases and criticisms I experienced from others afterwards. One great side effect for me, my TMJ went away never to return!

Did you know that more than one quarter of Americans getting divorced in the United States today are over age 50, and most of those divorces happen after 20 years of marriage? Pew Research found that the rate of divorce among those over 50 nearly doubled from 1990 to 2015, and the attitudes of those Americans have shifted to feeling much more supportive of divorce.

Here’s my own conclusion a few years after my own divorce:

“Perhaps it’s mainly women who get stigmatized by divorce: “What’s the matter—couldn’t keep your man?” The assumption being that any man is better than no man at all. Come on—we can do better than this, people! Few marriages are matches made in heaven, and sometimes they truly need to end. Mismatched is no match at all. It’s only fair that after a mistake, each of us can try again to find happiness before it’s too late.”

Divorce rates plummet as millennials marry

As many of you know, I have been an avid student of dating, marriage and divorce trends in our culture for many decades. I was the one who waited until age 39 to marry the first time and I still got it wrong, divorcing at age 46. A few years later I started my own dating service. I saw it as a study of how Americans in midlife approached love and marriage. Turns out I met the man for me that way, and we have been living relatively happily ever after for the past fourteen years.

This is one of the reasons why I find the marriage behavior of millennials quite interesting:

Americans under the age of 45 have found a novel way to rebel against their elders: They’re staying married!

Gay marriage

“New data show younger couples are approaching relationships very differently from baby boomers, who married young, divorced, remarried and so on. Generation X and especially millennials are being pickier about who they marry, tying the knot at older ages when education, careers and finances are on track. The result is a U.S. divorce rate that dropped 18 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to an analysis by University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen.”

But with an interesting twist:

“Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing.”  — Researcher Philip Cohen

It seems that the younger generation now sees marriage as a bit of a status symbol and, “Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot.”

This I find especially interesting in that these poorer couples could find a number of financial benefits from legal marriage. For example, married couples pay less taxes and save on medical insurance as a couple. I never saw marriage as a status issue. At the time I needed health insurance and got it through marriage.

There is no more important and personal issue than who we marry and why. At least some millennials are realizing that. Divorce is always difficult emotionally and in some cases traumatic. Most Boomers know that now. I see us as the transitional generation, who often did what we were told and perhaps got married young when we became pregnant, etc. Unfortunately many of us had to learn the hard way that:

DIVORCE IS EXPENSIVE. FREEDOM PRICELESS.