April 17, 2014

CAN LIMITING DIVORCE MAKE MARRIAGE STRONGER?

I can see the appeal of making marriage more difficult to get out of. My brief tour through the divorce literature indicated that ending a high-conflict marriage is better for everyone, including the kids — despite the financial and emotional drawbacks, it really is better to have two homes, rather than one where Mom and Dad are engaged in a bitter civil war.

On the other hand, the evidence on ending low-conflict marriages — one in which maybe one party, or both, doesn’t feel perfectly fulfilled, but they get along OK — wasn’t so happy. Children of low-conflict marriages whose parents divorce have more difficulty adjusting than the kids of high-conflict marriages. It’s thought that the divorce comes as a shock to these kids; a relationship that seemed fine to them suddenly dissolves, which changes their ability to trust the world and other people.

These divorces aren’t necessarily so great for the adults, either. Divorce tends to be a financial disaster for all but the very rich, because it’s more expensive to support two households than one. And people who exit marriages don’t necessarily find this makes them happier. We tend to think that marriages are good, and then they go bad, and then you divorce and get happy again, but unhappiness can often be a temporary condition that later improves.

Some approximation of this insight is what structured divorce laws before the no-fault revolution. You exited marriages in which there was abuse, adultery, abandonment or wild financial irresponsibility, not because you were just sick and tired of being married.

So could we make marriages stronger by making it harder to exit? Keep people together who rush into divorce court instead of waiting out a temporary spell of unhappiness?

Maybe. But we should be cautious about assuming that this would definitely make marriage stronger. As with so many rule changes, it might have the opposite of the intended effect.

Perhaps we should make divorce a matter of contract instead of status. Let people make their own arrangements, and perhaps incorporate a surety or insurance aspect. But read the whole thing for some excellent cautionary notes.