New divorce laws will come into effect next year. In essence, all divorces should now take 6 months from application to final approval.
Some worry that this undermines the lifelong promise of marriage, giving one disgruntled spouse the right to pull the trigger at any time. That has been the case for fifty years. For the minority unwilling to cast blame, the new law speeds the process up. For the majority, the need for blame is removed.
Some claim these changes turn marriage ‘from a contract to a trap for men’.
We think such fears are completely misplaced. To understand why, we need to understand what marriage is and how it works,
Marriage has never been a mere contract. Marriage is and remains a promise to stay together for life. And the new divorce law will not trap men – or women – any more than was ever the case.
When couples get married, they are choosing to add a protective wall around their relationship. The purpose and advantage of this wall – what researchers call a ‘constraint’ – is the signal spouses send to one another and to all around of their plan for the future.
The act of marriage removes any room for doubt that two people are both on the same page. That page says the plan is for a life together. Sure it doesn’t always work out. Humans are frail. But it’s a good plan. It’s crystal clear. And it leaves no room for ambiguity, arguably the ultimate relationship killer.
Having decided on a plan for the future together, their joint commitment allows each spouse to put the other first, to forgive one another when they blow it, and to sacrifice for one another without expectation.
These are just some of the reasons why couples get married and stay married. They are also the reasons why marriage is like no other contract.
Love, forgiveness and sacrifice only work their magic if both spouses can see a clear path ahead. They don’t have to put valuable energy into daily monitoring of what they’ve done. ‘Have I done more than you? It’s not fair.’ With their eyes on the future, it doesn’t matter, They can just do.
Without that sense of future, love can only be contractual. Relationships are reduced to a quid pro quo. ‘I did it last. It’s your turn now.’
Yet with a clear plan, love can be unconditional. That’s a far more appealing and sustainable prospect for everyone.
This is why marriage is not like a contract, It’s a promise.
The benefits of this are that those who marry are far more likely to stay together and their children are more likely to thrive. Look through our Marriage Foundation research if you want to see the evidence.
Sure, a minority of unmarried couples do extremely well, probably by applying similar principles of clarity and commitment, but without the overt formality. But the odds of success are stacked against those who don’t marry.
So let’s move on to when it all goes wrong, which is where divorce law comes in.
It is also the case that the protective wall of marriage can feel like a trap, when that plan for the future begins to lose its appeal. Almost everyone experiences this at some point or another in their life together. There is good reason why the marriage vows include worse, sickness and poorer – because it’s going to happen at some stage. I know more than most, having been perilously close to the brink early on in my own marriage.
But there are many other layers to the wall that constrain or trap couples when things go wrong. And the legal aspect of marriage is the least important of these.
The mere fact of living together constrains couples and makes it harder to leave. Children also constrain couples. People talk about ‘staying together for the kids’.
It is these constraints – and not the act of marriage – that makes escaping from the trap difficult. Breaking up is hard to do regardless of whether you are married or not. When things go wrong, the temptation is always to allow inertia to carry you on until some crisis – such as cheating or pregnancy – gives you the momentum to escape.
Any couple who has split up will confirm how hard it is to separate one household into two, to unwind the sheer complexity of living together, the shared history, the dashed dreams and hopes for the future, let alone dealing with the practical problems of where to live next, how to unravel finances, and how to manage children.
When couples break up, they aren’t thinking about divorce law. Most people only find out what the law says when they walk into a solicitors office. If they are brave enough to do that, they have gone a very long way down the road of dismantling all of these other protective walls. The legal aspect is the last because it deals with the next steps, steps they will have to negotiate whether they are married or not.
Current divorce law allows unilateral ‘no fault’ divorce after two years if both agree and five years if they don’t. The Owens case highlighted the absurdity of having to wait five years when one spouse has already made up their mind.
The alternative is that one spouse takes 100% of the blame and the divorce can happen within months. This is also absurd. Where one person behaves exceptionally and obviously badly I can buy 95% blame and 95% innocence. But this is the failure of a relationship involving two fallible humans. Nobody is perfect. How on earth can one person be 100% guilty or 100% innocent?
For fifty years, the system has forced couples to take this acrimonious route of casting 100% blame, having already decided to split up. No wonder lawyers and couples alike hate it. The only wonder is that it has taken so long to accept the inevitable – and yes it is inevitable once one spouse wants out – and make the process humane. Everyone can get on with dealing with the aftermath.
There is no reason whatsoever why this should undermine the promise of marriage. After all, nobody thinks about divorce law when they marry. They want the promise of a life together. They are thinking about staying together, not splitting up.
Nor is there any reason to think it will increase divorce rates which, by the way, are now the lowest since the 1960s. Back in 2006, Scotland reduced the time needed for divorce from two years to one year. After the extra year’s backlog had cleared, the pattern of Scotland’s divorces have continued on the same downward path of England and Wales (see p150 of this report).
Yes, marriage does have the potential to feel like a trap to both men and women because humans are fallible and some relationship fail.
But the odds of success are vastly better if you do get married and the odds of experiencing that trap remain vastly worse if you don’t.
Marriage remains the promise that it always has been. This legal change does nothing to undermine it.
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and author of ‘Commit or Quit: The Two Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance’