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. Changes in complex social systems can’t be reversed by simply undoing the original changes (unless it’s done soon afterwards). Likewise, simply removing the option of no fault divorce won’t make our cultural institution of marriage what it was before we made it easy to nullify the legal contract of marriage. The question for those who want to strengthen marriage within our culture is whether we should go back (and if so how?), or whether there is a path forward (and if so what forward path will most likely bring desirable outcomes?).
I don’t know how we could successfully go backward to where marriage was a more serious, even sacred, social institution. If we could figure out how to restore social expectations to where giving birth out of wedlock were frowned upon, landlords or hotels were unwilling to rent to unmarried couples, and there were some reliable incentives to encourage marriage comparable to men getting a raise when they got married (to list the main social sticks and carrots referenced above) it would probably not be a desirable path unless we could do so while still finding ways to provide needed support to single parents so that their children suffer as little as possible from the situation that is beyond their responsibility and avoid stigmatizing “old maids” (i.e. people who remain single).
I can’t even begin to imagine what possible direction forward would bring desirable outcomes although I am open to the possibility that such a path may exist. If we were to find one it must encourage youth to honor marital vows when they make them and to respect the vows that others have taken as well. It must also include a reliable way to prepare rising generations to become productive members of society and to take on the responsibilities of adulthood whether they get married or remain single.