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Saturday, June 7, 2014

It's the Culture, not the Waiting Period

There have been talk in recent years in several US states of possibly extending the waiting period for couples who want to get a divorce. Supporters say that this will give struggling families a 'second chance', whilst opponents say that it may make things even more difficult for people trapped in abusive situations.

As a former supporter of 'divorce reform' and covenant marriages, let me say this: I too would like to see a drastic cut in the divorce rates of the Western world, perhaps 4% would be much healthier than 40%. But to justify an increase in governmental intrusion, into an area of life that is deeply personal and private, requires solid evidence to back it up, as well as a strong democratic majority to support it. It would be forcing moral values down others' throats to suggest otherwise.

Let's look at the evidence first. On the evidence, I am unconvinced that barriers to divorce in the form of waiting periods or compulsory counselling have a major impact on divorce rates. In the US each state has a different waiting period, and the data suggests that there is no clear association between waiting periods and divorce rates. Plenty of no waiting period states are below median in divorce rates, whilst Arkansas with its long waiting period has one of the highest divorce rates. If anything, divorce rates appear to be more divided along regional lines, and appear to be particularly high in the South. This suggests that waiting periods provide minimal benefit at best.

And then there was the experience of covenant marriage. Exit from covenant marriages come with a longer waiting period and there may be counselling provisions too. However, evidence I have seen suggest a divorce rate of around 25% from memory. There is a reduction there, but it's around 20% or less. Plus there is sometimes also the option of getting the divorce in a neighbouring state. Given that only very few couples chose covenant marriage in the first place, this represents a self selected group, often more religious and traditional, who definitely take marriage more seriously. You would expect a significantly lower divorce rate amongst this group, frankly. Therefore, I expect the real benefit to be 10% or less, and it is entirely plausible that there is actually no benefit at all.

Let's look at the democratic situation now. Opinion on this issue appears split. A return to fault based divorce appears to be out of favour across the Western world, and mandatory long waiting periods and counselling continues to be strongly opposed by a significant number of people. Democratic opinion alone justifies not changing the current divorce system. The only other option is to provide a two-tiered marriage system as in covenant marriage, but take up rates are low and it may create more problems than it solves.

I would suggest that most people in the 1950s did not divorce not because of the barriers, but because they truly would not even think about getting a divorce unless there was abuse in the relationship, because culturally you didn't walk away from a marriage that was 'becoming boring', or 'simply does not satisfy me anymore'. Everyone knew the expectations of marriage. Such things as Hollywood 'mini marriages' would be considered highly offensive by most. I suggest that we return to this culture. Divorce should be available, but we should all have a cultural consensus that it is only for the unfortunate few suffering abuse at the hands of their spouses. It should be never something to even think about just because you had a minor argument with your spouse. It should never be seen as a common event. One aspect about the 50s view to divorce that I surely don't want back however is discrimination against divorcees. Many divorcees have suffered so deeply, it is only fair that a compassionate society show them the deepest condolences and support. Anything less is judgmental and cold hearted.

'Divorce reform' is a non solution that pretends to be a solution, to satisfy those who cannot find a solution but are angry at the sky high divorce rates in the Western world. I suggest that we should look at proper solutions instead. I think the answer lies in culture. Using government to solve a cultural problem is basically anti-libertarian, and before long we are on our way to fascism.