In the US, the number of divorces in any given year has steadily risen since the early 1980s. However, it wasn’t always this way. The history of divorce is long, complicated, and often contradictory. It has continued to change as social constructs around marriage and divorce change. Understanding divorce throughout history can help us understand where society currently stands on the issues surrounding marriage and divorce today.
The Evolution of Divorce from the Early 20th to the 21st Centuries
Historically, divorce was typically frowned upon. This was true even in the decades in which divorce was becoming more common. In the early 20th century, the divorce rate was about 1 in 4, but the number of divorces steadily rose as the century progressed. However, divorce was still seen as something that should be avoided at all costs.
This was because, at the time, divorce still carried a stigma and indicated one party had done something wrong. It was only available to people who could prove their spouse was unfaithful, abusive, or had committed a felony, although a felony was rarely used as grounds for divorce. Many states also required couples to attempt to separate for a certain amount of time before being granted a divorce.
What Actions were Eligible as a Cause for Divorce?
Historically, people could only divorce on specific grounds. One of the most common causes was adultery. Adultery at that time was interpreted to mean any sexual relationship that was not part of the marriage.
Acts such as abandonment, cruelty, and extreme drunkenness were also common grounds for divorce. Abandonment meant that the spouse was no longer living with the other person. The cruelty involved both physical and emotional abuse. Extreme drunkenness meant that the spouse was drinking so much alcohol that it was endangering their life or the lives of others.
The rise of divorce was partly because more people were getting married. Around the turn of the century, only about 1/4 of the population was married. In the 21st century, the number of people getting married was nearly double that. However, the reasons people chose to marry also changed. This also contributed to the rise of divorce in the early 20th century.
The Shift in How Marriage is Perceived
For the most part, marriage was for the rich and famous throughout history. It was also a way for families to increase their power and wealth through arranged marriages. Historically, marriage was considered sacred. They were not supposed to end. This was especially true for Roman Catholics, who were forbidden from divorce in any situation.
The shift in how society viewed marriage occurred in the 20th century when divorce became more common. The rise of divorce meant more people saw it as a viable option in challenging circumstances. As a result of this shift, more people started to view marriage as a contract that could be broken. The change in how society views marriage meant that it became acceptable to end unhappy or abusive marriages.
The steady increase in divorce rates during the early 1900s bears out in the data when we look at steadily increasing rates starting at 1% in 1901 and reaching 26% by the middle of the century. Hovering around there until 1970 when there was a precipitous increase to around 50% and stayed there in the 1970s and through the 80s. This also facilitated a dramatic rise in the number of practicing divorce attorneys in the US.
Church and Divorce
The role of the church and religion has also impacted divorce throughout history. In the Roman Empire, everyone had the right to divorce their spouse, and marriage was considered a private contract. However, the state placed a financial burden on those who were single, encouraging people to get or stay married for financial benefit.
As the role of the church evolved throughout history, notably the Roman Catholic church, marriage became viewed as a sacrament. By 1930, Pope Pius X issued the encyclical Casti Connubi emphasizing the dignity of marriage as a perpetual sacrament.
In contrast, in the Protestant Reformation, there was no one position on the ethics of divorce and remarriage, although there was a high value placed on marriage and children. However, marriage is not viewed as sacramental but rather emphasizes the civil aspect of society.
In short, the views of church leaders and scholars have been guided by their interpretation of the biblical teachings on marriage and divorce and that has not always been consistent across religions.
2010-Present Day: Marriage and Divorce
The way that marriage is perceived has also shifted in the 21st century. Marriage is no longer always expected to last until death, despite the vows that most couples recite. The average marriage length has decreased since the early 20th century. This is because more people are now choosing to divorce instead of staying in unhappy marriages. Additionally, the way that marriage is viewed and practiced has changed. People are more likely to marry for love than for other reasons, such as money or political gain.
They are also more likely to have a secular or non-religious ceremony. This means they are not subject to the Church’s divorce teachings. As a result, they are more likely to remarry after a divorce, and their children are recognized as legitimate.
Divorce has long been a controversial topic that stirs strong emotions in people. This is because it is often seen as something that tears apart families, but it doesn’t have to be. It is possible for two people to divorce in a way that honors the relationship they had, recognize that their future is not one together, and focuses on the best interests of the children if there are any if they divorce in an amicable and settlement-minded approach.
What is on the horizon for divorce? Current stats show that both divorces and marriages have steadily declined equally over the last decade, so it will be interesting to see what happens to this long-standing institution.