Divorce is all tied up with women’s rights.
Indeed it is, because while divorce means that a woman can legally leave a bad marriage, the changes in women’s rights and economic status were necessary to make leaving a practical alternative for more people. The two things go hand in hand.
In fact, one of the reasons behind the Women’s Temperance movement — which influenced the adoption of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. — was that women couldn’t get out of marriages to drunken husbands.
Up until the 20th century, women had few options for financial support other than marriage and divorce had social consequences as well as economic ones.
Even today, divorce remains economically problematic for poor people. If both spouses are working at minimum wage jobs, running two households instead of one may be prohibitively expensive.
Of course, these days, many couples do not get married in the first place, even when they’re having children. That, too, is often an economic decision. Some people don’t get married because they can’t afford to; they’re better off living with their parents even when raising children. In the case of more affluent people, some women decline to get married because they can afford to raise their children on their own.
No-fault divorce is now the norm in the U.S. and in a number of other countries in the world, including Australia, Canada, China, and Russia. This means that marriages can be resolved if one party testifies that there are irreconcilable differences. No one has to prove adultery or ill-treatment; they only have to state that they cannot get along with their partner.
While this doesn’t get rid of all ill-feeling in divorce – I have never yet seen a couple break up without both parties being emotional basket cases of one kind of another – it has apparently made a significant difference in the amount of violence that goes along with unhappy marriages. According to a Stanford Business School study (abstract — full article behind a paywall) cited on Wikipedia, no fault divorce led to a 30 percent decline in domestic violence and a 10 percent decline in the number of women murdered by spouses.
In the U.S., no fault divorce started in California in 1969 and now can be found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In Russia, it started after the Bolshevik Revolution – probably the earliest version of it.
As a writer, this means that if you want a plot that revolves around one spouse refusing to grant a divorce to the other, you should either set the story in the past or in a country that still requires some showing of fault or has other stringent requirements. These are most common in countries that are tied to particular religions. Some of those countries give men a great deal more leeway than women in obtaining divorces.
Of course, even with no-fault laws, there are still very messy divorces. People with lots of money will fight over that, sometimes raising issues of fault, sometimes just fighting over whether some of the resources have been hidden. And custody of minor children can still lead to bitter battles, despite such improvements as joint custody and mediation programs.
Texas, alone in the U.S. and possibly in the world, allows a jury trial on child custody. I tried one once – won it, too. Since both the parents were poor candidates for raising their six-year-old, it came down to a fight between the grown daughter of the mother (my client) and the parents of the father. I can tell you the whole experience was miserable for all concerned.
While I believe in the jury system, I’m not sure it’s a good idea in custody disputes, as it adds a greater level of stress to an already horrific experience. There are bad judges out there, but most do lean over backwards to make a decision in the best interest of the child.
I also lost an uncontested divorce once because the judge wasn’t sure we’d provided properly for the kids. We actually had a good agreement – which the judge later accepted – but our language didn’t conform to the traditional system. Divorce courts tend to be a little old-fashioned.
One of the things I learned during the few years I did divorces was that there were times when the only way to resolve the family conflict was to put it up to the court. I was once involved in a hearing in which the parties refused to agree to a division of the knick-knacks. After about an hour of negotiation, the other lawyer and I decided to put it before the judge, because neither of our clients was willing to be reasonable. It’s nice to try to come up with a negotiated settlement that both sides can live with, but it can be hard to get people who are feeling very emotional over the break up to see reason. Judges get paid to make decisions, even if it’s just about knick-knacks.