For a long time lawyers and policy makers in the UK have been saying that divorce law, currently governed by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, is an outdated and outmoded shambles. Last year The Times, backed by Sir Paul Coleridge of the Marriage Foundation, began a campaign calling for what they branded urgent and long overdue reform. In the current climate of serialised relationships, where cohabitation seems increasingly to be the preferred option, they called for the introduction of no-fault divorce, claiming that the requirement of ‘fault’ was costly and dishonest, unnecessarily increased conflict, and had a detrimental effect on all concerned, but most especially children. They argued that putting an end to the blame-game by removing fault would do away with unnecessary conflict and thereby strengthen marriage.
Under current UK law, the sole ground for divorce is irretrievable breakdown, but this must be supported by one or more of five ‘facts’. Irretrievable breakdown can be evidenced by adultery, unreasonable behaviour, or desertion. If these three grounds do not apply and both sides agree, the couple will be granted a divorce after two years; if there is no agreement and the divorce is contested, the period extends to five years.
Therefore, in effect, if the couple are prepared to wait, we already have ‘no-fault’ divorce. And if it so happens that World War 3 breaks out and one party is bitterly opposed, then, even minus supporting grounds, at the end of five years the divorce is still inevitable.
Proponents for reform, however, argue that this isn’t good enough and that both periods are too long – entirely failing to acknowledge the realities of modern life, where 42% of marriages now end in divorce, and the average marriage lasts only a period of 11 years and six months (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24123046). Having to show fault to procure a quickie divorce, they say, encourages couples to lie and only serves to increase conflict, worsening the outcomes for all involved. Simple then – remove any concept of fault and the whole process will become painless and more civilised, leaving the couple free to move on in harmonious accord.
Traditionally, and as defined in the Bible, marriage is the lifelong and exclusive joining together of one man and one woman, which union can be ended only by death or on the grounds of adultery. On this line of reasoning, it is a covenant. Everything changed, however, with the introduction of same sex marriage, because legally adultery is only possible with someone of the opposite sex, so same sex marriage has never been based on the same idea of fidelity. Many argued at the time that this would have a damaging and downgrading effect on the whole institution, but current proposals for reform go infinitely further. In one fell swoop they would jettison all idea of lifelong commitment, making marriage from the outset a temporary contract that can be ended at whim by either party, simply because one or both are no longer ‘happy’. In fact, it’s worse than a temporary contract – because under these proposals there doesn’t have to be any element of breach, non-performance, or resulting damage. All of which means that marriage, from the outset, will be inherently unstable.
But this is just acknowledging reality, say the would-be reformers, and taking the burden off the courts. It removes all need for conflict, meaning children won’t suffer the fallout of their parents’ aggression. So why does it matter?
Ah, if only life were that simple.
No divorce happens as a result of apathy. By definition, when a relationship breaks down there is always some element of conflict, and removing the right of the injured party to express rage and/or affix blame would surely be like trying to cork a volcano. In fact if anything, telling someone who’s been deeply wounded by a partner’s betrayal or desertion that in effect their feelings don’t matter, can only intensify feelings of bitterness and resentment. And in the process it will surely destroy all possibility of what’s called ‘closure’, fatally preventing one party at least from moving on.
It’s claimed that a quick ending to marriage without possibility of challenge will benefit children, who will be saved from exposure to their parents rowing. But this assessment is questionable. Where their parents are involved, there are negative developmental impacts for children from any kind of conflict, even where ‘silent’ (https://tavistockrelationships.ac.uk/policy-research/policy-briefings/969-impact-couple-conflict-children), meaning that it is divorce itself that is the problem. Also, if children see absolutely no evidence of conflict at all, yet see their parents’ relationship breaking down, in the absence of ‘cause’ there is every danger they will blame themselves for the split.
No, as a society, rather than encouraging instant divorce, we should be seeking to strengthen and support marriage, helping couples resolve their differences and stay together; helping them be good parents.
It is beyond question that society as we know it is breaking down, as evidenced by the rising rates of crime and violence, skyrocketing reports of sexual abuse and coercion, and ever spiralling rates of mental illness affecting both adults and children alike. Successful marriage – the accepted bedrock of society – is a bulwark against the chaos. Beyond question it benefits the couple, but, most of all, it provides a safe environment for children, allowing them to develop and go with confidence into the world.
Removing all notion of blame so as to make divorce easier will not, as claimed, strengthen marriage and promote wellbeing. If anything it can only increase instability and make people question why they would want to get married in the first place. After all, why go to the bother of tying yourself to someone when you know at the outset it’s not likely to last very long, and when you’ll incur financial liabilities, without benefit? Far better just to acknowledge reality and live with someone whilst the going’s good, and then, when you break up, go your separate ways. Simple.
And so the cycle of chaos spins ever faster, with dysfunctional children growing into even more dysfunctional adults – like Canute, standing on a windswept shore, entirely powerless in face of the incoming tide.