In the grand scheme of things, divorce is a fairly new phenomenon. While divorce has technically been around for hundreds of years, it has only become common and socially acceptable in recent decades.
Even 100 years ago, divorce looked very different than it does today. Last month, a news story examined some century-old cases which were only recently unsealed in New York – one of only two states to automatically seal divorce records. At least one of the cases involved a couple who first got married here in New Jersey.
Every state now has some version of no-fault divorce laws. New Jersey adopted its law in 2007, and New York became the last state to do so in 2010. Couples can now cite “irreconcilable differences” and part ways without blaming one another for ruining the marriage. In the early 1900s, however, fault-based divorces were really the only option.
This led to several problems for most couples. First, only a few iterations of fault were allowed: infidelity, inability to have children, cruelty, etc. If neither spouse violated these terms, a divorce might not be granted. This forced some couples to lie their way into a divorce.
Second, fault-based divorces often resulted in additional punishment for the spouse at fault. When one spouse had cheated, for instance, it was common for judges to prohibit that spouse from being able to remarry in the future. The spouse who had been cheated on was usually allowed to remarry, however.
Finally, whether the “fault” was real or made up, fault-based divorces created an adversarial divorce process. Modern laws now recognize that marriages sometimes do not last, and that divorce isn’t always the fault of one spouse or the other. In allowing couples to file no-fault, it at least provides the opportunity for an amiable split.
Interestingly, in 1915, the borough of Manhattan had a population of 800,000 more residents than it has today. Yet in 1915, only 50 divorce cases were filed in Manhattan Supreme Court. A century later, the borough saw 15,000 divorce filings in a single year.
Although most people don’t consider divorce to be a “good” thing to experience, it is good that couples can now get divorced if they need to. Times have arguably changed for the better.