[Crossposted at Family Scholars Blog]
Marina Adshade, an economics professor with an interest in “sex and love,” writes:
Today we will take a few minutes to show a little appreciation for an important right in Western society – the right to divorce. [...]
Economists Justine Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, in a 2006 paper, showed that these legal changes had significant impacts on the quality of life of women. Taking advantage of in state-by-state variations in the time in which these laws were put into place they found that freer access to divorce brought with it an 8 –16% decline in female suicide, a 30% decline in domestic violence and 10% decline in the murder rate of women.
You may argue that these benefits to unilateral divorce laws come at significant costs – hardship for children and female poverty, just to name two – but that would only be true if the change in divorce laws increased the rate of divorce and that has not been proven. In fact, the best evidence suggests a very small positive effect on divorce rates only in the ten years after divorces became easier to obtain. And even then, that effect was only among those who were married before the laws were put in place.
The explanation for why easier access to divorce has not increased divorce rates is simple – men and women enter into marriage more cautiously when they know that divorce is easier to obtain. This is because while the laws may have made divorce easier from a legal standpoint, they have not made marital dissolution emotionally or economically painless.
It is this fact that explains why women marry later in life when it is easier to divorce.
A second explanation, which also explains the fall in domestic violence and suicide in states that support unilateral divorce, is just knowing that your spouse can divorce you without your consent encourages married individuals to treat each other better.
In the article, Adshade also argue that the use of “covenant” marriage agreements doesn’t actually make people less likely to divorce, but they do make the divorces harder on the people involved (“Anecdotal evidence suggests that even when abuse has been proven judges strictly enforce separation periods of up to two years.”). Those costs fall disproportionately on women:
The purpose of a covenant marriage is to increase the cost of divorce, significantly, and as a result give parties an incentive to stay in a failing marriage. If women are lower wage earners than men, or are out of the workforce all together, then the imposition of these costs falls disproportionally on women making it difficult for them to leave a bad marriage. That part of the arrangement is significant since in the majority of divorces it is the wife who wants the marriage to end.
I pretty much agree with Adshade on all of this. Married life was not a paradise in the 1950s, and the people I know who got divorced did so only after a lot of anguish and thought. Contrary to what the marriage-rescuers seem to believe, most Americans take marriage very seriously; trying to make it even harder to divorce is punitive, it is anti-liberty, and it will not actually improve anything.