This month marks the 40th anniversary of the earthquake that rocked the American family. Such an anniversary deserves to be remembered.
On Sept. 4, 1969, California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a “no-fault” divorce law.
California wasn’t the first state to pass a no-fault provision - that honor went to Oklahoma (1953), followed by Alaska (1963) and New York (1967), according to the 2004 Handbook of Contemporary Families. But California was the first state to cast out “fault” in divorce entirely and replace it with “irreconcilable differences.”
Within 15 years, every state had followed suit in some way, and the so-called Divorce Revolution was on its way.
What motivated people to enact no-fault divorce laws?
One reason was that, in a fault system, a divorce required at least one spouse to prove that the other had committed adultery, abandonment or abuse. This meant hiring a private detective and/or collecting incriminating evidence for the court.
Or - and this happened far too often - couples who both wanted the divorce had to resort to manufacturing evidence - faking abandonment, for instance. This kind of fraud insulted the court, legal professionals complained.
And then there were the genuinely ugly divorces, in which both spouses hurled blame and evidence at each other. Everyone suffered, including the children.
Thus, the noble purpose of no-fault divorce was to remove the contentious, annoying legal requirement for couples to prove anything other than their desire to divorce. After all, the thinking went, if marriage was the union of two people, and one person wanted out, then the union was no longer viable.
Except that wasn’t the whole story.
“The key to understanding the problem is to recognize that the grounds for divorce did not go from fault to no-fault; they went from mutual consent to unilateral,” said Allen Parkman, University of New Mexico economics professor and author of books on divorce.
Under the fault system, “most divorces were negotiated and eventually [happened] based on mutual consent,” Mr. Parkman said. But once one person could legally end the marriage, “there was no longer any need for negotiations.”
The 40 years of divorce-on-demand has left a “poisonous legacy,” wrote W. Bradford Wilcox, University of Virginia sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project, who detailed his observations in an article in the new National Affairs quarterly.
Divorce expert Judith Wallerstein said in 2005 that the number of children affected by divorce was 1 million children a year, since 1973. These young people’s passionate, even pathological, fear of divorce continues to reverberate through the culture via rampant cohabiting and delayed marriage.
Going back to California’s 1969 no-fault law, it appears that it was also a case of the personal becoming political.
According to “Stolen Vows,” a 2002 book by Judy Parejko, the California lawmaker (James A. Hayes) who championed no-fault divorce was embroiled in a bitter divorce from his stay-at-home wife and mother of his four children. Removing fault didn’t help Mr. Hayes in his divorce, but it certainly crushed the “negotiating power” of other stay-at-home wives, Ms. Parejko wrote.
And when Mr. Reagan signed the bill, he was apparently still smarting from his 1948 divorce, which actress Jane Wyman obtained because of his “mental cruelty.” Mr. Reagan later said signing the no-fault law was “one of the worst mistakes he ever made in office,” son Michael Reagan wrote in his book, “Twice Adopted.”
Michael was 3 when his father and Miss Wyman divorced. His description of divorce - “where two adults take everything that matters to a child - the child’s home, family, security, and sense of being loved and protected - and they smash it all up, leave it in ruins on the floor, then walk out and leave the child to clean up the mess” - still resonates today, fault or no-fault.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.