No-fault divorce laws represent a modest but potent factor in the nation's high divorce rates, a study says.
"The best evidence suggests that no fault-divorce increases the divorce rate on the order of 10 percent," says a paper released today by the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy (IMAPP).
"This research contradicts the conventional wisdom among some prominent legal scholars that divorce law has no influence on people's behavior," said Simon Fraser University economics professor Douglas Allen, who examined 24 studies to determine how no-fault divorce laws affected divorce rates.
The wide adoption in the 1970s of "no-fault" divorce — which allowed divorce without proving to a court that one spouse was to blame — was not the only reason why divorce rates rose after 1960, he said, "but it appears to have played a role."
The effect of divorce law on divorce rates typically ranged from 5 percent to 30 percent, so 10 percent is a "fair estimate," said IMAPP President Maggie Gallagher.
But 10 percent is not minimal, she said. "It means that every year approximately 10 percent more children go through the agony of divorce" because "of the way we framed our divorce laws," she said. "I think that's something to be concerned about."
Between 1960 and 1980, the U.S. divorce rate more than doubled, from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women to 22.6 divorces per 1,000. By 2004, the rate was about 18 divorces per 1,000 wives, according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.
Lingering ambivalence about divorce is reflected in state legislatures. Some state bills would make divorce easier by reducing waiting times, while others would make it harder by denying no-fault divorce to couples with minor children.
Many social scientists accept divorce as part of modern family dynamics.
"By the end of the 20th century ... divorce replaced death as the 'normal' endpoint of most marriages," clinical psychologist William M. Pinsof wrote in a 2002 article in Family Process, a journal on family research. More research can help people address this new "marital reality," he wrote.
"Chore wars" are now a big factor in divorce, Lynn Prince Cooke, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Cambridge, England, said in a brief released this month for the Council on Contemporary Families, which studies family issues.
"I found that couples where the wife earns about 40 percent of the income while the husband does about 40 percent of the housework have the lowest risk of divorce," she wrote. In contrast, the risk of divorce rises if the husband is the sole earner and the wife is the sole cleaner, or if the opposite is true — the wife brings in more than 80 percent of income and the husband is "Mr. Mom."
Ms. Cooke said research shows that many modern couples strive for an equitable sharing of employment and housework.