Divorce Throughout History: Releasing the Ties That Bind

Divorce Throughout History: Releasing the Ties That Bind

“Rule 59: Happily Ever After Is an Oxymoron.”

That’s the title of episode 13, season 2 of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, an original Bravo series that embraces the idea that the end of a marriage may not necessarily be the end of the world.

Whether it’s through this and other thoughtful comedies like Grace and Frankie or empowering memoir-turned-films like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, the entertainment industry has released the topic of divorce into the mainstream. And when Sarah Jessica Parker — an actress widely known for her role in Sex and the City — begins starring in an HBO series titled simply Divorce, this long-stigmatized topic might finally be worth talking about.

Untying the Knot in Centuries Past

Throughout history, divorce was either illegal or socially unacceptable. In the Time article A Brief History of Divorce in America: From Legal Rarity to Dark Comedy, writer Ashley Ross draws a stark contrast between Parker’s new HBO series and the stigma of divorce in centuries past.

“History has not been kind to people — especially women — who sought divorce. And it wasn’t even until the late ’60s that Americans were allowed no-fault divorces, meaning either party could walk away sans spousal wrongdoing.”

Ross continues, “The modern concept of divorce can vary by culture and religion, but early forms of the idea were almost always a male prerogative.” In many cultures throughout history, men have long held the power when it comes to divorce. (And in many countries, they still do. See our previous post in this series: Divorce and Culture: Releasing the Ties That Bind.)

Take, for instance, the notorious philanderer Henry VIII. When his wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to provide him with a male heir that lived past infancy, he requested permission from the Pope to end the marriage — and used church loopholes to award himself an annulment when it was denied, marrying his mistress, Anne Boleyn, shortly thereafter. (Each wife met her own tragic end: Catherine was banished from court, forbidden from communicating with her daughter, and died shortly thereafter. After Boleyn gave birth to a stillborn male, King Henry had her detained and found guilty of several false charges [crimes of high treason] and she was beheaded in 1536 — just three years after her marriage to the king. He then married his third wife within 24 hours of her death.)

Divorce in Bible Times

Perhaps surprisingly to some, true biblical law was a bit more fair. The Old Testament taught that, “when the man failed to live up to his side of the bargain, either by depriving his wife within marriage, by aggressive abuse in marriage, or by dissolution of the marriage, the Law provided for her protection by permitting divorce,” says bible.org.

“The Law required the actively or passively abusive husband to release the wife, if she sued via the courts, though the husband technically did the filing for divorce. The innocent woman who had been divorced was permitted to remarry. The man in those cases (the ‘guilty’ party) was permitted to marry, since polygamy was permissible, but the Scripture had especially strong condemnation (‘adultery’) for a man who divorced solely for the purpose of devoting himself to another woman. Thus, divorce could either be a discipline or an act of treachery; the grounds in the case determined which it was.”

Modern Solutions to a Centuries-old Problem

In the 1800s, divorce was legal in the U.S. — with proof of physical cruelty and adultery. (The omnibus clause allowed divorce when the courts viewed it “just and reasonable.”) But when these conditions weren’t present, people went to more desperate measures. “Divorce mills” — states with even more liberal laws that allowed for a quick and easy end to a marriage — sprang up in states such as Indiana, Utah, and the Dakotas. Some towns provided out-of-towners seeking divorce with accommodations, meals, and entertainment to feed the trade.

Indiana’s divorce rate became so high during this time The Chicago Press and Tribune claimed the “cheap and easy method” had created a “scandal.” A later editorial asserted that state lawmakers had “practically legalized Free Love and its endless and nameless abominations, not only for themselves but for half the Union besides.”

According to Indiana Public Media, “Indiana’s towns, the writer charged, now ‘swarmed’ with women unhappily married to ‘sots, beasts, or debauchers’ as well as with ‘fast women who feel that all husbands are nuisances; fast men who prove the fact in part; silly women who have married in haste and are repenting at leisure; silly men, ditto ditto’ — and these cases numbered in the thousands.”

Both the ambiguity and the leniency of certain laws during this time caused a rise in divorce rates in the second half of the 19th century that continued long after Indiana reformed its divorce laws in the 1870s and lasted well into the 20th century.

In 1969 (and after two world wars that left lawmakers somewhat distracted from the trappings of divorce law), California governor and divorcee Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act, which allowed “irreconcilable differences” as alternate grounds for divorce. This ushered in no-fault divorces of the 1970s, the decade when other states also adopted the law.

In subsequent years, divorce certainly became more common, but it still carries a heavy stigma.

Divorce and the Path Forward

As we reflect on the laws of the past, it might seem as if a lot has changed. After all, when someone makes the decision to divorce, there are far less legal constraints than there were 100 or even 500 years ago. But in many ways, divorce is still viewed with the same consternation. In some religious communities especially, so-called “guilty” parties may be shunned or punished in other ways. (We’ll examine this topic in the next post in our series: Divorce in Religion: Releasing the Ties that Bind.)

That said, perhaps it makes sense to examine our own preconceived notions about divorce. After all, as our understanding of the human condition evolves, so too, must our view of relationships — specifically where marriage and divorce are concerned. (Read more about the evolution of marriage here.)

Maybe we’re not comfortable watching a lighthearted comedy about the dissolution of a marriage, but can we rethink how we view our friends or family members when they experience a divorce? Many of us, at one time or another, have judged someone for the reasons or manner in which they left their marriage. If so, did we fully grasp all the factors involved? Did we truly seek to empathize with each partner and understand his or her perspective?

In many cases, opinions about divorce are formed long before people have a complete understanding of each specific situation. And sometimes, due to the private nature of marital relationships, we may never know the full story. Despite our limited knowledge, however, do we tend to allow preconceived ideas — dictated by cultural norms or historical precedents — to affect our views and opinions?

At Wevorce, our own history is closely intertwined with the hundreds of couples we’ve worked with over the years. These couples have repeatedly shown us, despite their pain in their most difficult hours, that divorce isn’t black and white — despite what history says. On the contrary, we often find that couples who increase dialogue have a better chance of rejecting history’s ugly stigma. These conversations can lead to bold, new beginnings (after the financial and emotional upheaval subsides).

With this understanding, we strongly refute the idea that divorce means doom. In fact, removing the stigma — and making the difficult but necessary decisions that have been avoided since the beginning of time — might just be the road to our recovery, rather than the path to our demise.

Are you currently thinking about divorce? Learn more about how we can help.