An article in the Deseret News about various efforts to make it harder to divorce led me to an article in Bloomberg View by Megan McArdle. The whole thing is worth reading but the part that got me thinking and writing was this:
The divorce laws of an earlier era were one part of a complex social institution with mutually reinforcing norms and a fairly elaborate system of punishments and rewards. People were encouraged to stay in marriages because divorce was difficult — but it is at least as important that divorce was heavily stigmatized. Even more important is the energy society spent encouraging people to get married in the first place — not just with the gauzy dreams of wedding gowns and perfect babies that help sustain the institution today, but also with a complicated system of carrots and sticks that have now completely vanished. Old maids were stigmatized; women who had babies out of wedlock were shunned. Marriage was the only socially permitted way to cohabit and, for that matter, often the only legal way to do so: Landlords didn’t like renting to people who were shacking up, and hotels that rented rooms to openly unmarried couples risked being indicted as brothels. On the positive side, getting married often meant a raise for a man, and for both parties, it constituted instant admission to adulthood. In short, the legal system of yesteryear didn’t have to worry that harsh divorce laws would discourage marriage entirely; any marriages that they did discourage probably shouldn’t have happened. But people would continue to get married, because there wasn’t any viable alternative for the majority of people who wanted to live on their own and raise a family without the neighbors talking — or calling the vice squad.
McArdle may be right in suggesting that making divorce harder could have unintended consequences but she has clearly identified many of the social supports we’ve kicked out that were never intended to bring the consequences that we are dealing with now. Continue reading