Civil Liberties

Surprises from the Divorce Revolution

Has no-fault divorce produced stronger marriages?


Divorce is one of those creations, like fast food and lite rock, that has more people willing to indulge in it than people willing to defend it. Back in the 1960s, easier divorce was hailed as a needed remedy for toxic relationships. But familiarity has bred contempt. In recent years, the divorce revolution has been blamed for worsening all sorts of problems without bringing happiness to people in unhappy marriages.

There's a lot of evidence that marital breakup does more social harm than good. In their 2000 book, The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher document that adults who are married do better than singles in wealth, health, and personal satisfaction. Children living with a divorced or unwed single parent are more likely to fall into poverty, sickness, and crime than other kids.

Marriage is a good thing, most people agree, while divorce is, at best, a necessary evil. So the laws that accompanied the divorce revolution have come under fire for destroying families and weakening safeguards for spouses who keep their vows.

Waite and Gallagher argue that loose divorce laws harm even intact households by fostering chronic uncertainty. Louisiana, in line with this criticism, has gone so far as to provide a "covenant marriage" option for couples who want the protection of stricter divorce rules.

It may seem obvious that easier divorce laws make for more divorce and more insecurity. But what is obvious is not necessarily true. What two scholars have found is that when you make divorce easier to get, you may actually produce better marriages.

In the old days, anyone who wanted to escape from the trials of wedlock had to get his or her spouse to agree to a split, or else go to court to prove the partner had done something terribly wrong (such as committing adultery). The 1960s and '70s brought "no-fault" divorce, which is also known as "unilateral divorce," since either party can bring it about without the consent of the other.

The first surprise is that looser divorce laws have actually had little effect on the number of marriages that fall apart. Economist Justin Wolfers of Stanford University, in a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), found that when California passed a no-fault divorce law in 1970, the divorce rate jumped, then fell back to its old level—and then fell some more.

That was also the pattern in other states that loosened their laws. Over time, he estimates, the chance that a first marriage would break up rose by just one-fourth of one percentage point, which is next to nothing.

In short, nothing bad happened. But in another NBER paper, Wolfers and fellow economist Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania report that in states that relaxed their divorce laws, some very good things happened: Fewer women committed suicide, and fewer were murdered by husbands or other "intimate" partners. In addition, both men and women suffered less domestic violence, compared to states that didn't change their laws.

We're not talking about tiny improvements here. Wolfers and Stevenson say that in no-fault states, there was a 10 percent drop in a woman's chance of being killed by her spouse or boyfriend. The rate of female suicide in new no-fault states fell by about 20 percent. The effect was more dramatic still for domestic violence—which "declined by somewhere between a quarter and a half between 1976 and 1985 in those states that reformed their divorce laws," according to Stevenson and Wolfers.

What could account for these surprising benefits? Something simple: A change in divorce laws alters the balance of power in a marriage, giving more leverage to the weaker or more vulnerable spouse.

If either partner can demand a divorce, each has a greater incentive to keep the other content. If an abused spouse has an open exit, some abusers—and potential abusers—will find it possible to behave themselves.

By assuring both people in a marriage that they can get out if things go badly, the looser laws can foster the sort of behavior needed to make sure things go well. Just as a driver in a small car will drive more cautiously than someone in an oversized SUV, couples faced with loose divorce laws may handle their family obligations with greater care.

No-fault divorce once looked like a remedy for bad marriages, in the same way that amputation is a remedy for a gangrenous limb. The good news is that it may prevent the disease in the first place.


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is currently on vacation. This column was originally published in April 2004.