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No-fault divorce isn't the actual problem


Last year, rightwing pundit Steven Crowder made waves when he publicly lamented the fact that his wife was abandoning their marriage.

“My then-wife decided she didn’t want to be married anymore,” he complained. “And in the state of Texas that is completely permitted.”

I remember wanting to spit out my coffee when I read this.

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Why would any self-respecting person admit out loud to an audience of millions that he believed the law should trap a woman in a marriage to him against her will? What kind of narcissistic entitlement was this? “How dare she be permitted to leave me?” he seemed to be saying in his tirade against no-fault divorce.

And his audience was largely sympathetic. Conservatives have been decrying the evils of no-fault divorce for decades, blaming it for problems like the destruction of the family unit, the widespread throwaway attitude toward the institution of marriage, and the fatherlessness epidemic, among other societal ills.

Of course, the public sympathy for Crowder would be relatively short-lived. His ex-wife released some video footage of him behaving like a tyrant, and it mostly shut him up for a while, but the crusade to end no-fault divorce, especially in red states, seems to have snowballed in the past several years, as spearheaded by popular conservatives like Dusty Deevers, Ben Carson, House Speaker Mike Johnson, Matt Walsh, and others. The Texas Republican Party added a call to end the practice of no-fault divorce to its 2022 platform. Both the Nebraska and Louisiana GOP are considering similar proposals.

Deevers recently argued that easy access to divorce causes “social upheaval, unfettered dishonesty, lawlessness, violence towards women, war on men, and expendability of children.” His statements accompanied his sponsorship of an Oklahoma SB 1958, a well-intended but poorly conceived train wreck that would put (especially women) in grave danger should it ever pass committee.

Trapping battered spouses in marriages with abusers until such a time as they can legally prove the abuse is a recipe for getting people killed, especially when the abusive spouse controls the family finances. This is reckless public policy that seems to be completely “divorced” from the wisdom and insight of people who have walked these roads before.

G.K. Chesterton is credited with having said, “Do not tear down a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place,” and it’s a sentiment that applies here. On the right, we seem to have a pretty short memory when it comes to the horror stories that inspired Reagan to sign the first no-fault divorce law into place back in 1969.

But when it comes to conservative discussions about this topic, we don’t generally hear anyone reflecting on the sordid history of increased female suicides and domestic violence. All we can seem to find are self-appointed spokespeople claiming to advocate for children and families without having earned the right to claim expertise on the topics they’re amplifying.

It’s well and good to remind the public, for example, that divorce is hard on children. I don’t disagree. Marriage should be for life. Kids DO suffer when their parents split. This is objectively true. It’s not really up for debate. Throwaway marriage culture creates countless victims, and we do need to have a broader conversation about marriage preservation and fighting for relationships when times get tough.

But in Christian circles, all anyone ever wants to talk about is how divorce will ruin children. No one ever wants to talk about how staying in abusive marriages scars kids for life. Divorce hurts kids, but so does an entire childhood steeped in domestic violence, and for whatever reason, conservatives don’t seem too terribly interested in amplifying the voices of the kids raised in homes with toxic marriages. These experiences don’t serve to advance the preferred narrative. And when these voices ARE raised, they’re generally written off as a fringe few that can’t be allowed to distract from the bottom line of marriage preservation at any cost.

One thing I hear a lot is that the data show that abuse isn’t a factor in most divorces in America. We really need to challenge this belief.

Data are important. I won’t dispute this. But it’s also true that there are truths the data don’t reveal. My no-fault divorce says we divorced for irreconcilable differences, when, in fact, it was the quickest, safest route out of abuse and infidelity. This is the reality for countless people across the country. If you have the option of getting out of dodge as quickly, safely, and inexpensively as you can vs the option of hiring an expensive attorney to take your ex to a risky trial where anything less than damning evidence is going to end badly for you and your children, which option are you going to take?

You’re going to check the box that says “irreconcilable differences” and work to recover from the trauma as quickly as possible. And then family policy groups are going to take your data and conclude that abuse isn’t really a problem. And they will be woefully misguided.

I honestly don’t think the average decent man has any idea just how common domestic abuse and violence really are or how difficult they are to prove in court.

Decent men don’t think like abusers, so it doesn’t occur to them how many other men do. They keep telling me, “If a wife is abused, she can file for at-fault divorce, and she will be just fine.”

But they don’t ever seem to have any answers for how the wife is supposed to do this if she’s a stay-at-home mom with no income of her own, and her husband controls the purse strings.

They don’t know how she’s supposed to prove that he’s whispering his constant verbal threats to her, thereby escaping recording or the attention of potential witnesses who could substantiate her claims.

They don’t know how to help her be taken seriously by the police when she tells them he’s trapped her in the house for the past three hours but he denies it ever happened.

Go to the website of any divorce attorney in a state where at-fault divorce is the default, and they’ll spell it out for you pretty clearly: “Emotional/psychological abuse is pretty difficult to prove in court.”

So no, I don’t think trapping (often) penniless women with their abusers is really going to save the family unit. I think it’s just going to obscure a problem most of us would just rather not see.

And no, of course I’m not saying that all no-fault divorces are the result of abuse. But I’m saying a lot of them are. And I’m saying you would never know this from a surface-level review of the statistics.

And let’s say Dusty Deevers and company DO succeed in getting rid of no-fault divorce. Then what? Do we actually believe they’re going to lift a finger to help women caught in abuse? I’m not particularly optimistic about this.

We’ve already seen hundreds and hundreds of times what the theobros do to battered women: they throw them back into the lion’s den, tell them to submit and pray for their husbands, and then look the other way. How many dozens of times have I written about this and brought the receipts? Google Eileen Gray.

Marriage at the expense of women’s physical and emotional health is not God’s formula for thriving family. You really think the kids are going to be alright in this milieu? Of course they’re not.

If the only thing keeping a marriage intact is a law forbidding one of the spouses from leaving, we’ve already lost. That’s not the kind of relationship that’s going to give kids the safety net you want them to have. Marriage is only as good and as healthy as the people within it.

No-fault divorce didn’t create a new problem as much as it revealed a pre-existing one. Let’s have that conversation.

Kaeley Harms, co-founder of Hands Across the Aisle Women’s Coalition, is a Christian feminist who rarely fits into boxes. She is a truth teller, envelope pusher, Jesus follower, abuse survivor, writer, wife, mom, and lover of words aptly spoken.

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