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The Real Reason Why We Divorce

The history of divorce is also the history of romance.

Society has a special place in its psyche for true love. We think of it as unconditional, intimate, and everlasting. Divorce, on the other hand, seems the antithesis of love—temporal, legalistic, and involving lots of paperwork.

So would it surprise you to learn that the development of our Western notion of romantic love is what ultimately led to the development of divorce law?

The truth is this: Not only did the development of romantic love coincide with the development of available divorce, it was the trigger. This juicy part of societal history has been widely overlooked.

Let's start from the beginning: From 0 A.D. to the 1600s—that is, 1,600 years—divorce was not available to married couples. The Catholic Church influenced and controlled marriages. With only a few exceptions, marriage was permanent, regardless of abuse, fault, irreconcilable differences, or anything else short of death. This permanent marriage was not based on ideas of romantic love, but on much more practical matters, such as reliably keeping land in the family, and keeping status stable.[1]

Indeed, romantic love was not encouraged, and was even frowned upon, between married couples. Up to the 18thcentury, “it was generally held that passionate sexual love between spouses within marriage was not only independent, but positively sinful.”[2]

If divorce was unavailable for 1,600 years, how did it become so widespread (relatively) recently? The Church became less influential, and the importance of family land became less crucial. But the more important—and interesting—factor is that Western concepts of romantic love began to arise in the 1800s. Enlightenment thinkers in their salons, and romance novelists in their publications, began pushing married love as a credible idea. After women began reading these books and listening to these ideas, it began occurring to them that they should marry for love rather than convenience—a novel concept at the time.[3]

However, once romantic love entered the equation, eternal marriage became psychologically inconsistent. Romantic feelings are emotional. And emotional feelings change over time. Therefore, a marriage built on romantic feelings could not be indissoluble. Because “human emotions need not remain eternally constant…divorce became practically possible.”[4]

In sum, it is ironic that today, many of the people who advocate against easy divorce do so with the idea that they are defending romantic love—because it was the very emergence of romantic love that triggered the availability of divorce. Marriage based on other factors like religion, land, and family obligations were much more stable bases for marriage than emotional love.

So the next time you hear someone complaining about the frequency of divorce in America, blame it on love.

[1] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 282 (Herbert Broom & Edward A. Hadley ed., John D. Parsons Law Book Publisher 1875) (1765).

[2] Lawrence Stone, The Past and Present Revisited 347 (Routledge 2d ed. 1988) (quoting St. Jerome, quoting Seneca).

[3] Stephanie Coontz, Marriage (2005).

[4] Margaret F. Brinig & Steven M. Crafton, Marriage and Opportunism, 23 J. Legal Stud. 869, 875 (1994).

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