Saturday, July 21, 2007

Unilateral divorce

Now here's an interesting thought:

The problem is not really that we now have no-fault divorce, but that we have unilateral divorce. What the no-fault revolution has really meant is that it takes two to marry, but only one to divorce. In practice this often means that the "monied party" – usually him – can walk away from the "unmonied" (or making-much-less) party and the kids.
I believe the situation in Britain is that after two years of separation, "bilateral" divorce is possible - where both parties agree - and after five years "unilateral" divorce becomes possible. What if the five year period were extended? It wouldn't have to be indefinite to have an effect.

I guess several bad consequences can be foreseen:

1. Some people would be trapped in non-existent marriages, either because their spouse didn't agree to divorce or (possibly - and this is a situation that pertained in the past) because the whereabouts of the spouse were unknown.

2. A malicious spouse - and, if mutual consent were the only criteria, even the one who had left the marriage or whose behaviour was cruel or unreasonable - could prevent the other from remarrying.

3. If other grounds for divorce - infidelity, unreasonable behaviour - still existed these would have to be resorted to, creating a more adversarial breakup than might otherwise be the cae, with the attendant adverse consequences for any children of the marriage.

Having said all that, if marriage really is beneficial for society, it is because it is seen to be a form of commitment to a relationship that exceeds simple partnership. Right now, this is not really the case. Marriage can be exited fairly easily, although there may be financial consequences for the higher earner.

Making divorce harder might provide a stronger justification for the state providing benefits (higher tax allowances, preferential inheritance including of some forms of tenure) as an incentive for marriage. As such, however, you'd also have stronger incentives for entering into a marginal (less strongly desired, less capable of success) marriage and this might increase the total of human misery.

So would the benefits of making divorce harder - longer-lasting marriages even if they are sometimes unhappy, and a stronger justification for incentives - outweigh the disadvantages? I don't think so.

The missing ingredient here is social opprobrium. Unforeseen consequences invariably attend the State's incursions into human affairs. What we are lacking is a general social willingness to be judgemental. And a return of that - not just in marriage but more urgently in respect of child rearing - would be a very welcome thing.

1 comment:

Tim Worstall said...

There was a divorce case a few years back where some actress (cannot remember names, sorry) wanted a two year divorce and the husband refused. Ended up as a very nasty fight precisely because she then had to go and prove for cause.
Pity I cannot remember anything else about it of course.