Divorce in the United States
Divorce involves the recognition that a marriage has hopelessly failed
and that at least one of the partners has no desire to continue the marital
relationship. Divorce legally dissolves a marriage, and permits the partners to
remarry if they choose. Divorce differs from an annulment, which declares a
marriage invalid because of some flaw in the contract.
The early American settlers brought with them three different views on
divorce: 1) the Roman Catholic view that marriage was a sacrament and that
there could be no divorce; 2) the English view that divorce was a legislative
matter; and 3) the Protestant view that marriage and divorce were secular
matters to be handled by the civil authorities.
The Constitution of the United States did nothing to limit the rights of
the states to enact their own laws governing marriage and divorce. Despite
several efforts to amend the Constitution, to allow Congress to pass federal
legislation on divorce, to this day the states retain separate laws. Because
divorce laws vary from state to state, the “migratory divorce” developed:
couples would move temporarily to a state where divorce was easier to obtain
than at home. For example, a couple living in New York State, where until 1967
the only grounds for divorce was adultery, would establish residence in Nevada –
– a procedure that took only 6 weeks — and file for divorce on grounds of
Popular attitudes toward divorce changed as the United States became
more urbanized and less religious. The increasing acceptance of divorce was
reflected in court interpretations of existing laws and in new legislation
enacted by the states. Two tendencies merged, making possible the establishment
of new and easier grounds for divorce. The focus of state divorce, which
previously concerned itself with specifying legal grounds for divorce, shifted
to criteria concerning the breakdown of the marital relationship. This could be
seen in conditions that allowed divorce for alcoholism, drug addiction, or
nonsupport. Another tendency permitted divorce if both parties gave of
voluntarily separating and living apart for a specified period of time. For
example, in 1967, New York allowed divorce for couples who had been legally
separated for 2 years, eliminating the search for a guilty party. In 1969,
California permitted divorce when “irreconcilable differences” arose, thus
becoming the first state with a “no-fault” divorce law. Nearly all the other
states soon added no-fault divorce options to their existing laws.
Published statistics show that the United States has the highest divorce
rate in the world, and in recent decades it has held fairly steady. In 1975 the
rate was 4.9 per 1,000 people (over twice that of Great Britain) and in 1990 it
was 4.7 per 1,000. It is sometimes said that in the United States, for every
four marriages, a divorce occurs. Divorce statistics, however, tend to be
misleading. In 1990 about 2.4 million marriages took place in the United States
and about 1.2 million divorces — about one divorce occurred for every two
marriages. It would be equally true, however, to say that 80 percent of all
married people are still in their first marriage.
Statisticians speak of the “crude” divorce rate — the number of
divorces per 1,000 population. The crude divorce rate of 4.7 in 1990 in the
United States may be compared with a crude marriage rate of 9.7 (9.7 marriages
per 1,000 population). An even better measure is the number of marriages or
divorces per 1,000 “population at risk,” that is, the total number of persons
who are in fact married at the time. In the United States in 1987, there were
123 divorced persons for every 1,000 married persons; in other terms, the
divorced portion equaled about 12 percent of the married portion of the
When marriage and divorce rates in several countries several factors
must be taken into account: the proportion of the population that is of marrying
age, the proportion that marry, and the age at marriage. Because people now
live longer and marry earlier, the size of the population “at risk” increases.
Only in Japan is the married proportion of the population as high as it is in
the United States. Moreover, Americans who get divorced are likely to remarry.
In the mid-1980’s approximately 50% of divorced U.S. women remarried. Sixty
years earlier, two out of three divorced persons did not remarry. If the
divorce rate has risen noticeably, so has the marriage rate.
Anthropologists report that many societies have even higher divorce
rates than that of the United States. For example, Nigeria would have a divorce
rate approaching 100 percent if some married people did not die young. The
belief that high divorce rates reduce social organization has not been proved.
The social effects of divorce depend on what happens to families that experience
it and on the arrangements society makes for them.
Divorce can be a devastating experience. While the divorce is in
progress, and for some time afterward, both parties are likely to feel
personally rejected, cheated in the economic arrangements, misrepresented
legally, bitter about the co-parental arrangements, lonely because they have
lost friends, and afraid of living alone.
In the United States, the mother traditionally has been supported
economically by the father, and granted custody of the children unless she is
found unfit by the courts. The father is usually awarded more material
possessions and awarded the right to visit the children regularly. Prolonged
and bitter struggles for legal custody have often scarred both parents and
children. In extreme cases, the parent losing a custody conflict, or upset
about material divisions may even resort to burglary or kidnapping his or her
In recent decades, however, other patterns of child custody and economic
arrangement have emerged alongside the old. Some mothers have voluntarily
relinquished custody in order to pursue other goals, or because they believe the
children may fare better with the father. Joint custody has also become more
common, with parents sharing responsibility for the raising of their children,
even after remarriage. Fair divisions of material possessions are rising as
more women enter the work force and consequently contribute equally.
Divorce has become an ingrained part of American society — almost
similar to marriage. Previously, I believed that married couples with children
should avoid divorce for the sake of their children. However, after compiling
data for this report and discussing divorce with others, I have determined that
dissatisfied couples — who avoid divorce — often take their anger out on their
children. This practice often harms the child emotionally — or in some cases –
– physically. Although my parents are not divorced, I have become acquainted
with many people whose parents are divorced. Through discussions, I have
determined that most of these people felt relieved when their parents finally
got divorced — because it ended the constant arguing and violence at home.
Albrecht, Stan L., et al., Divorce and Remarriage (1983);
AUTHOR:Albrecht, Stan L.
TITLE:Divorce and remarriage : problems, adaptations, and
adjustments / Stan L. Albrecht, Howard M. Bahr, and Kristen L. Goodman.
PUBL.:Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press,
FORMAT:xiii, 211 p. ; 25 cm.
Belli, M., and Kranzler, Divorcing (1988);
AUTHOR:Belli, Melvin M., 1907-
TITLE:Divorcing / by Melvin Belli and Mel Krantzler.
PUBL.:New York : St. Martin’s Press,
FORMAT:xii, 434 p. ; 23.5 cm.
Clapp, Genevieve, Divorce and New Beginnings (1992);
TITLE:Divorce and new beginnings : an authoritative guide to
recovery and growth, solo parenting, and stepfamilies /
PUBL.:New York : Wiley,
FORMAT:xv, 377 p. ; 23 cm.
Myers, M. F., Men and Divorce (1989);
AUTHOR:Myers, Michael F.
TITLE:Men and divorce / Michael F. Myers.
PUBL.:New York : Guilford Press,
FORMAT:xv, 286 p. ; 24 cm.
Splinter, John P., The Complete Divorce Recovery Handbook (1992);
AUTHOR:Splinter, John P.
TITLE:The complete divorce recovery handbook : grief, stress,
guilt, children, co-dependence, self-esteem, dating, remarriage/
John P. Splinter.
PUBL.:Grand Rapids, Mich. : Zondervan,
Walzac, Yvette, and Burns, Sheila, Children and Divorce (1984).
TITLE:Helping children cope with divorce / Edward Teyber.
EDITION:1st pbk. ed.
PUBL.:New York : Lexington Books ; Toronto : Maxwell Macmillan
Canada;New York : Maxwell Macmillan International,
FORMAT:ix, 221 p. ; 24 cm.