New Worlds: Divorce

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

It’s common for Christian wedding vows to include the phrase “till death do us part” . . . but the truth is that marriages don’t always last.

The circumstances under which they can end, though, range all over the board. Who’s allowed to call it quits: the husband, the wife, their families, some higher (secular or spiritual) authority? What cause, if any, is required before you can cut the tie? What hoops do you have to jump through, and what are you allowed to do afterward?

At the most restrictive end of the spectrum, you have the Catholic prohibition against divorce. Annulment, which the Church permits, is not the same thing: that doesn’t end a marriage, but rather declares that it was never valid in the first place. (Consanguinity, forced consent, killing one spouse so you can marry another, holy orders or vows of chastity, and various other factors can mandate an annulment.) At the most permissive end, for comparison, “triple talaq” allows a husband to divorce his wife just by saying “I repudiate you” three times.

One of the primary factors in the regulation of divorce is the protection of women. Many Muslim countries and schools of jurisprudence, going all the way back to the days of Muhammad, condemn triple talaq because it kicks the wife out into the cold with basically no warning or recourse at all. The Catholic prohibition is based on the idea that the bond created by marriage can’t be dissolved by human action, but it also prevents husbands from abandoning their obligations to their families. The more a society makes women dependent on men for their financial support and protection, the more important it is to make sure they can’t easily be set aside.

But of course requiring people to remain married can be detrimental in different ways. The same patriarchal structures that make it difficult for women to support themselves outside of wedlock tend to create power dynamics within the marriage that don’t do those women a lot of good, either: an abusive husband can be worse than scraping to make ends meet on your own, and attempts to “reconcile” couples in such situations often amount to telling battered wives that things will be better if they just submit to their husband’s authority. Formal separation can be a way around this; the two parties remain married in the eyes of religion and/or law, possibly with some financial obligations, but they no longer maintain a household together or remain married in the day-to-day, relationship sense.

Let’s get back to those initial questions. Who can end the marriage? If a union has to be recognized by the church and/or state to count as valid, then those same institutions generally have to validate a divorce, too. But it’s also sometimes possible for them to initiate the separation, even against the will of the husband and wife — especially if you want your fictional society to be a bit dystopian! Families have definitely exerted their political clout to break apart marriages, sometimes for the benefit of their kin trapped in a bad match, but sometimes for reasons of their own political benefit, like being able to then wed one of those people to someone else.

More often, though, divorce is initiated by either the husband or the wife. As you can imagine, it’s much more fair if they have equal right to do so — and I’ll note that in the modern U.S. and U.K., where that’s true, women file for divorce about twice as often as men do. (Why that might be the case is left as an exercise for the reader.) If only one spouse is permitted to end a marriage, it’s usually the husband, which is why you get structures that try to limit how easily he can do so: he generally has less to lose in the process.

One way to limit ease of divorce is by only allowing it when sufficient cause can be shown. (If no cause is needed, it’s called “no-fault divorce,” which has been on the rise worldwide for the last fifty years or so.) The causes can usually be summarized as a failure to uphold marital vows or duties: adultery is a very common reason, but others include abandonment, cruelty (i.e. abuse), and so forth. Non-consummation — i.e. failure to have penis-in-vagina sex — usually results in annulment rather than divorce, because the marriage isn’t valid until it’s consummated, but failure to have children sometimes counts, whether that’s caused by impotence, infertility, or just not living up to your marital obligations in bed. (This isn’t necessarily gender-skewed the way you might expect: wives can and do bring complaints against their husbands for insufficient nookie, especially in polygynous marriages.)

Speaking of gender . . . not living up to your gender role can also be cause for divorce, and I don’t just mean in the sense that you’ve committed adultery with someone of your own sex. If I recall correctly from my thesis reading, women in Viking Age Scandinavia could divorce their husbands for “effeminacy” — which included wearing clothing that was too girly. (Careful how many ruffles you put on that shirt, guys! The entirety of aristocratic Renaissance Europe would have been disqualified on the spot.)

Divorce can also be limited through mandatory waiting periods. These provide opportunities for reconciliation attempts — which may also be mandated — but also sometimes serve the practical purpose of making sure the wife isn’t pregnant before the marriage gets dissolved. Charging fees for the process discourages people from quitting, and so does the thorny issue of who gets to keep what property and other resources after the split, which is a whole legal industry nowadays in the United States.

Finally, though, I want to note that sometimes a marriage isn’t intended to last. There’s some evidence that Scotland used to recognize handfasting as a form of temporary marriage, though historians debate that; it’s definitely true that a few schools of Islamic thought allow for such a thing, though most don’t. (I discovered this through an article, which I have now sadly lost, that discussed how some modern jurisprudists support it nowadays on the grounds that young people in cities are going to be having sex regardless, and it’s better for them to do so within the bounds of at least a fixed-term marriage rather than outside it entirely.)

What about after divorce? If anybody gets the short end of the stick, it’s usually the ex-wife, who may have no means of support and whose family may not welcome her back (especially if her dowry was forfeited in the divorce). She may be allowed to remarry, but might well face an uphill struggle in doing so; her ex-husband often has an easier time of it. But it depends heavily on how common divorce is in that society. If marriages regularly fall apart for one reason or another, then there’s much less stigma associated with being divorced — especially if you can convince your next spouse that it wasn’t any fault of yours. When it’s rare and difficult, however, future prospects are more likely to give you the side-eye, if re-marriage is permitted at all.

And that’s it for marriage . . . at least for now. I haven’t even touched on matchmaking, betrothal, wedding customs, concubinage, and various other aspects that might fall under this umbrella. But we’ve had a whole month on the topic of marriage — and, I might note, a whole year of the New Worlds Patreon! Thank you all so much for your support, and I’ll be back next week with something special.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


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