Harry Benson explains why today's news that 'no-fault' divorces are on the way is less worrying than it sounds
It’s nearly twenty five years since my wife Kate confronted me about the state of our marriage. “Harry, you’re not the friend I need you to be. If nothing changes in the next year, our marriage is over”.
It was a bolt from the blue. Kate and I had what seemed to me a great life. We had been married for eight years and had two young children, then aged one and three.
And yet we had done that classic thing new parents so often do. We had drifted apart. With so much focus on our functional roles, we had taken our eyes off our relationship. I had seen that Kate was such a natural mother, had stepped back and very subtly stopped taking the initiative.
Kate has a really insightful expression for what happened next: “The neglected wife micromanages.” And so she did. She felt frustrated. I felt got at. And we stopped being friends.
But even as we stood on the brink of divorce, the one thing that never occurred to either of us was the legal process involved.
We simply never thought about the law. We would certainly have encountered it at the point we had actually decided to divorce, but because we never actually made that decision – and instead rebuilt our marriage – we never found out
Divorce on demand?
Some Christians are concerned that the introduction of no-fault divorce will make divorce all too easy, causing divorce rates to spike upwards and undermining stability and commitment.
I see no logical reason or hard evidence why this should turn out to be the case, for the same reason that nobody thinks about the legal process until they walk through the solicitor’s office door. At that point, almost no marriages reconcile. They’re over.
For decades, family lawyers have had to tell those who come in asking for a divorce that they must wait two years if they both agree or five years if they don’t. The alternative, if they want to speed up the process, is to pin the blame on one spouse, whether for bad behaviour, adultery or desertion.
Needless to say many couples take this quicker fault-based route, which now comprises six out of ten divorces.
There are two reasons why, as Christians, we should want to get rid of this system.
The first is that no matter how badly, and obviously badly, one spouse may have behaved, divorce is the failure of a relationship between two human beings who fall short of the glory of God.
I can see how one partner could take 95 per cent of the blame. I just can’t see how anyone could ever attribute 100 per cent blame to one spouse and zero per cent to the other.
The second is that, as lawyers endlessly state, the need to pin all the blame on one person precedes the need to get both parents cooperating as well as possible. The two processes are in direct opposition to one another.
The Scottish model
Anyone still not convinced should look at what happened when a similar process was introduced in Scotland. In 2006, the time requirements for no fault divorce were lowered from two years to one year if both parties agree and from five years to two if not.
The result was a small blip as the backlog of two year divorces cleared, followed by a resumption of the downward trend that we’ve seen in England and Wales.
The new proposal is to drop the minimum time to six months and remove the need for fault altogether. This seems eminently sensible.
As my colleague former high court judge Sir Paul Coleridge points out, this will actually slow the process down for many of the six in ten who currently use fault to speed things up.
In the end, we need to remember that divorce rates are at their lowest in fifty years, as couples who marry today are so much more intentional about the need for formal commitment.
It is even possible that no-fault divorce may help make marriage more attractive, while having no negative effect on divorce.
When family breakdown is a key factor in children’s well-being and mental health, we should be doing all we can to encourage commitment. Whereas stability is the exception among cohabiting parents, it’s the norm among married parents.
We all want reliable love. So we need a commitment mechanism that helps us achieve it. That’s marriage. But we are also fallen humans who need an exit route if absolutely necessary.
The move to no-fault divorce is almost universally welcomed. Christians should support it. There is nothing to fear.
Harry Benson is author of What Mums Want and Dads Need To Know and research director for Marriage Foundation
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