How Divorce Went From a Devastating Life Event to a Cause for Celebration

While the breakup of a marriage is rarely easy, the big 'D' has significantly changed over the decades.

In the span of a lifetime, divorce has gone from being highly taboo to more American than apple pie; from the inspiration for a decade of angsty grunge anthems to introducing terms like “conscious uncoupling” and “divorce-moons” into our break-up lexicon. Today, we’re witnessing the rise of the “happy divorce.”

 

In his review of the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer, Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie is about a situation rich in opportunities for choosing upsides: a divorce and a fight for the custody of a child. But what matters in a story like this isn’t who’s right or wrong, but if the people involved are able to behave according to their own better nature. Isn’t it so often the case that we’re selfish and mean-spirited in just those tricky human situations that require our limited stores of saintliness?”

When it comes to the depiction of divorce in popular culture – both before and after Kramer vs. Kramer – the dissolution of a marriage is predominantly painted in a negative light. Since North America’s divorce rate soared above 50 per cent in the 1970s, we’ve been inundated with visions of restraining orders, depositions, custody battles, alimony payments and traumatized children. As a result, we’ve been led to believe that few things inspire as much anxiety, anger, resentment and despair as the end of a marriage.

However, splitsville is no longer a shanty town full of bitter exes, crippled finances and broken hearts. While the breakup of a marriage is rarely easy, the big “D” has changed significantly over the decades. In the span of a lifetime, it’s gone from being highly taboo to more American than apple pie; from the inspiration for a decade of angsty grunge anthems to introducing terms like “conscious uncoupling” and “divorce-moons” into our break-up lexicon. Today, we’re witnessing the rise of the “happy divorce.”

The history of divorce in the Western world has always been one of shifting values. While the ancient Athenians were fairly liberal in allowing divorces, dissolutions of marriage were rare in the early days of the Roman republic. However, as Rome expanded, so too did the Roman mindset when it came to divorce. By the time Rome became an empire, divorce was frequent among the patrician class. Christian emperors would from time to time make divorce more difficult for Romans, only for succeeding emperors to do away with restrictions.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, divorce in the West became a matter of church rather than of state. The divorce rate plummeted during the ninth or 10th century after the Catholic Church claimed marriage to be a sacrament indissoluble by humans. It wasn’t until the Reformation when marriage would again be considered a civil contract. However, because no precedent existed at the time, secular courts would more often than not rely on the rules put in place by the Church when asked to grant a divorce. While different regions in Europe adopted different rules at different times, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that conditional (typically in the case of adultery) divorces became widely legal.

In North America, divorce rates increased dramatically during the 20th century, as a result of two major divorce revolutions. The first occurred in the late 1960s. Though divorce laws vary, there are two basic approaches: fault-based and no-fault-based. California Governor Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of “no-fault” divorce in 1969, requiring no proof of fault for either party for a marriage to be dissolved. By the mid-1970s, nine more states would adopt no-fault divorce laws,and by the early 1980s, every state (with the exception of South Dakota and New York) had introduced some form of no-fault divorce. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Divorce Act was amended in 1968 to permit divorce for reasons other than adultery or cruelty, including a separation of at least three years.

The laws reflected general changes in social attitudes at the time and directly led to the divorce boom of the 1970s. Reagan would later call his move to no-fault divorce the biggest mistake of his political career. Between 1960 and 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled, hitting an all-time high of 52 per cent in California. In Canada, the divorce rate doubled in the five years following the 1968 amendment of the Divorce Act. However, it didn’t reach its peak of 41 per cent until 1986, when the Divorce Act was amended once again to reduce the separation period to one year, and removed any requirements to prove “fault” by either spouse.

As a result of the increased number of legal separations, half of the children born in the 1970s saw their parents divorce – more than any other generation in history. This led to the second divorce revolution, one that came at the hands of those scarred by the messy splits of their parents: the Gen-Xers and older Millennials who have been dubbed the “Divorce Generation.”

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