Splitsville Gets Smaller

by Brendan I. Koerner

I had to engage in a bit of uproarious guffawing upon reading this brain-dead take on New York's long-awaited shift to no-fault divorce. The writer pleads for Governor David Patterson to veto the bill, using that tried-and-true "won't somebody please think of the children!" logic lampooned so memorably on The Simpsons. Yet she conveniently ignores two key facts. First, as I recently discussed on Microkhan, there is zero evidence of a correlation between the adoption of no-fault divorce and higher divorce rates over the long-term; in fact, according to this paper (PDF), no-fault laws may actually lead to lower divorce rates.

More important, critics of liberalized divorce laws start with a false assumption: That in an ideal world, no marriage would end in divorce. But you know what? People and circumstances change over time, and a certain percentage of marriages are better off ending rather than limping along 'til death ends the sad charade. Marriages only benefit society when they free their participants to engage in productive endeavors; no societal good can come of partnerships in which the lion's share of energy is devoted to jealousy and bile.

There is, of course, a downside to making divorce too easy, as such policies encourage impulsive splits. But my sense is that lawmakers the world over have generally erred on the side of caution when relaxing divorce laws, which partly explains why splits have recently been nosediving from the U.S. to England to Spain to Saudi Arabia.

True, the global divorce-rate trends are partly attributable to the lackluster economy, as well as the fact that people in the developed world are marrying later than ever. (It should come as no surprise that folks who get married before they're full-fledged adults tend to get divorced a lot.) But there's also something to be said for our species' wonderful capacity for processing complex information. Immediately after divorce laws are relaxed, there is usually a brief spike in the divorce rate, as people rush to take advantage of their newfound freedom. But experience quickly teaches them that hasty divorce can have serious consequences, both fiscal and emotional, and society learns to treat the institution with the appropriate respect. And that's something that intellectually honest conservatives should applaud, given that personal responsibility is one of their big hobby horses. Instead, many of them plead with government to keep saving unhappily married people from themselves. Curious, that.

There's probably a lesson to be learned here about how other much-debated social reforms will inevitably play out over time. But I'll leave that to the learned commentariat to discuss.

See also: Microkhan on the divorce rate for arranged marriages and divorce in the 19th century.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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