Written by Beverly Willett
Last August, David Patterson, the former Governor of New York, made the biggest mistake of his political career: He signed a bill making New York the 50th and final state to enact no-fault divorce. No matter that New York then had one of the lowest divorce rates in the nation. No matter that for 40 years history had taught that divorce rates shot up with the enactment of no-fault divorce.
I was heartsick when I read the news, and wrote about my own divorce experience for The Daily Beast. After 20 years of marriage and two children, nine years ago my husband had begun having an affair and unexpectedly walked out one day. I was devastated, but thought he’d eventually come to his senses. Family isn’t something to be thrown away overnight and, while I may have been naïve at the time, I fought to save mine.
The day my story came out in the online newspaper all hell broke loose.
“What’s wrong Mommy?” my youngest daughter E. asked when she saw me burst into tears. We were on vacation, and I’d decided to check the computer before we headed to the beach.
“Nothing honey,” I said, quickly steeling myself. “Just that article I told you about. Some people didn’t like it.”
Hate mail had already begun rolling in to the website. Eventually, there were e-mails and messages waiting for me on Facebook, too. I never expected such an outpouring of venom from total strangers. More than anything, though, I was bewildered, as baffled perhaps as I’d been the day my ex announced his departure.
What was controversial about a woman who loved her husband and children more than anything and wanted to save her family from the heartaches of divorce? Was she really an “idiot,” a “psycho” bent on “revenge,” out to hog-tie the man who freely said “I do” into “forced slavery” because of her hard-headed sense of right and wrong? That’s what some anonymous commenters thought. Maybe divorce brings out the worst in people.
“It’s okay, Mom. You’re a good writer,” E. said as I swabbed my eyes and put on my swimsuit. “You’re always telling me not to worry so much about what other people think.” True. My daughter and I went off to the beach for the next few hours, me arm-in-arm with the child the naysayers said I’d have been better off spending my legal money on. As if yet another pair of Doc Martens could somehow ease the pain of our family break-up. E. and I returned to our friend’s apartment later in the day, fortified by gelato. By then, I’d missed the opportunity for one national radio spot, but when Fox came calling, however, I’d shored up my jujitsu.
As the week wore on, many supporters weighed in, too. Children of divorce whose first-hand experiences confirmed that their parents’ decision to break up the family hadn’t been the best thing for them. Supporters who felt standing up for principles didn’t warrant putting me under lock and key. Even people in no-fault states who were refusing to accept the odds. Women — and men — who had also been suddenly disposed of, and understood the anguish, the financial hardship, the fallen dreams. I’d also written the article for them, so they’d know they weren’t alone. Their touching messages had me tearing up all over again: Divorce can bring out the best in people, too.
I wonder now what the cynics were afraid of. Was it guilt over trivializing their own failed marriages? Inability to confront the undeniable — and painful — truth about how divorce had negatively affected their children? Perhaps some were domestic violence victims who misunderstood me — I’m certainly not against divorce in those cases. I’ll bet, too, though, that more than a few responders had never walked in divorce shoes.
But they will. Roughly 40-50% of married couples will one day be pulled into the vortex of no-fault divorce, if they haven’t been already. For many, it will be unforeseen, against their will, and whether they like it or not. Many will be innocent offenders. Stay-at-home moms will be among the hardest hit.
I logged onto my friend’s computer again when I returned from the beach that day. It was hard at times to read between the lines, but some critics and fans seemed to share common ground about at least one thing — we’ve made a shambles of the state of marriage in our culture.
And research shows allowing rampant divorce hasn’t solved the problem. I’d thought maybe sharing ideas could help us come up with solutions to ensure less of them, and that writing the article might set the ball rolling.
For years, New York was poised on the precipice of enacting no-fault divorce, and defeat of the recent bill, which was hotly contested, might well have started the pendulum swinging on our country’s grand divorce experiment gone bad. Instead, New York lost its toe-hold and, with it, its dignity.
But I got one thing wrong in my article last summer. I was disheartened at the time and thought that with the eradication of fault-based divorce in America, standing up for marriage and family was surely now an impossible dream. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Less than a year later, the Coalition for Divorce Reform was born.