By Mike McManus
In the old days, if a spouse wanted a divorce, there had to be proof that a partner was guilty of a major fault – adultery, abandonment, or physical abuse. Marriage was considered a sacred contract agreed to by the man and woman before God and witnesses.
Then in 1969 California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed America’s first No-Fault Divorce law. A spouse could simply allege that the marriage had “irreconcilable differences,” and the divorce was always granted. No fault had to be proven. Almost all states passed no-fault divorce by 1975, and America’s divorces almost doubled from 636,000 in 1969 to 1,189,000 by 1979.
Reagan later told his son, Michael, no-fault was his “greatest regret.” Michael wrote about the impact of his dad’s divorce to Jane Wyman:
“Divorce is 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.”
In my book, “How to Cut Divorce Rates in Half,” I argue that no-fault is unconstitutional. Both the 5th and 14th Amendments guarantee that “no person be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” But when every divorce is granted, how is there due “process of law” to the four of five spouses who do not want a divorce?
And divorced people ARE deprived of life, liberty and property. A divorced woman lives 4 years less than a married woman, a divorced husband, 10 years less and their kids live 5 years shorter lives. Typically the father can only see his kids two weekends a month – depriving him and his kids of liberty. And creating two households on the same income as one, deprives both of property.
In testimony I gave to a Michigan House Committee on Families, Children and Seniors this week, I suggested four reforms of no-fault divorce:
First, more time. America’s divorce rate of 23% after five years of marriage is triple the 8% of Britain or France. Why? If a British husband wants a divorce but his wife does not, they must wait five years to be divorced – and six years in France. Five or six years is a lot of time for couples to reconcile.
By contrast, Michigan and 22 other states require a ZERO waiting period for divorce, or only 20-60 days. These states are pushing people to divorce.
Therefore, I propose that states require a one-year waiting period, and two years, if the divorce is contested. Neighboring Illinois has such a law, and its divorce rate is only 44.8% compared to 60% in Michigan. If Michigan had Illinois’ law there would have been only 28,800 divorces instead of 36,000. More than 7,000 couples would have saved their marriages.
Second, I suggest that if one spouse files for divorce, that the couple be allowed to continue living under the same roof. Every state with a waiting period requires couples to move apart, which only encourages husband or wife to begin dating. They should have the option to remain in the home together, if desired, to encourage reconciliation.
Third, I have two educational suggestions. If the couple has children, before divorce papers can be filed, they should be required to take a 4-hour course online that summarizes the impact of divorce on children.
What they will learn is that a child of divorce is three times more likely to become pregnant as a teenager or to be expelled from school as a teen from an intact home, five times as apt to live in poverty and six times more likely than those with married parents to commit suicide and 12 times more apt to be incarcerated.
No parent wants to push their children into such disasters, but an unhappy spouse is not thinking about his/her children. They are only thinking of their pain. This course should prompt many parents to resolve their differences as a couple to preserve their marriage.
My second educational suggestion is that during the year or two of delay before the divorce takes effect, states should require the couple to take a course to improve their skills of communication and conflict resolution. Most couple divorce because they don’t know how to resolve difference amicably, which can be taught in a day.
Finally, the spouse trying to preserve a marriage should get 70% of family assets, instead of the usual 50-50 split – and at least 50% of child custody time.
The Michigan committee was encouragingly open and supportive of my ideas – except for my suggestion that the spouse opposing divorce get 70 percent of family assets. (I replied, “How about a 55%-45% split? A 50-50 split encourages a man” — or a woman — “to have an affair…That is my most radical proposal. If you don’t like it, throw it out. But lengthen the time before a divorce is granted and add the educational elements. Those things are not controversial.”)
State law should encourage reconciliation – not divorce.