Beginning in 1969 when California’s Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law (which he later called one of the worst mistakes of his political career), our nation’s divorce rate rapidly ratcheted upward from approximately 20 percent to approximately 50 percent.
This article, the first in a series of three, will document a crucial error we can no longer afford to pretend hasn’t been made: the belief that no-fault divorces between parents result in few consequences outside the lives of the people directly involved, and that the consequences are short-term. Research shows that not only is this belief incorrect, it is dangerously incorrect, and the dangers extend to all of society.
The second and third articles in the series will show serious legal problems with no-fault divorce, and outline a reasonable reform plan for lowering the divorce rate and thus beginning to reduce the vast damages caused by no-fault divorce—without a return to certain draconian features of divorce law that existed prior to 1969.
Your authors have devoted a combined total of more than two decades of detailed investigation into the considerable literature published on this subject, along with applied work in trial and appellate courts as those relate to a contemporary American society that is reeling from the unintended consequences of no-fault divorce.
Before continuing, we need to define two key terms.
What Is No-Fault Divorce? What Is a Nuclear Family?
Here is a legal definition of fault: “A negligent or intentional failure to act reasonably or according to law or duty; an act or omission giving rise to […] civil tort lawsuit.”
Traditionally, before an American court would grant a divorce, it had to rule that either a husband or a wife was at fault. That is, one spouse was required to allege specific acts or omissions on the part of the other spouse as justification for the petition. A feeling that one or both spouses lacked commitment, or were growing apart, or were unhappy—which are the bread and butter of no-fault divorces—was usually considered insufficient grounds for granting a divorce. No-fault divorce does away with any requirement that a petitioning spouse prove fault on the part of the other spouse. No-fault divorce is a “Get Out of Marriage Free” card. (Well, not so free, as we shall see below.)
“A nuclear family is a social unit composed of two parents and one or more children.” Not many years ago, it would have been unnecessary to note the biological component in this definition: “Parents” is a biological notion, not a legal fiction. Pointing this out does not take away recognition from non-parents who may step into a parent’s role and fulfill that calling in the life of a child. That this must be made explicit, however, does gesture at how far and fast family law has changed in the decades following that first California no-fault divorce law.
A Statistical Presentation of the Issue
We are about to look at some statistics that paint a troubling portrait of non-nuclear families, in aggregate. Note: If you are a parent doing your best to raise a child in a non-nuclear family setting, please do not read any of these statistics as a paint-by-numbers portrait of your family, child, or you—because statistics don’t work that way. Statistics are about large groups of things; they are virtually silent about single things. The statistics that follow describe large statistical groups—not your particular family, child, or you. We present them to help a self-governing people consider what kind of laws it wants for society as a whole, and why.
Statistically, children from non-nuclear families:
• Suffer at least a 10 percent lower grade point average in school.
• Are between 2.5 and nearly 6 times more likely to experience child poverty.
• Are 2-3 times more likely to exhibit a significant emotional or behavioral problem.
• Are between 1.9 and more than 4 times more likely to be expelled from school.
• Are more than twice as likely to spend time in state reform institutions.
• Have at least a 35 percent higher likelihood of being physically abused.
• Have at least an 87 percent higher likelihood of being harmed by physical neglect.
• Have at least a 50 percent higher likelihood of developing health problems.
• Have at least a 74 percent higher likelihood of suffering emotional neglect.
• Have at least an 80 percent higher likelihood of suffering serious injury as a result of abuse.
In summary: These children “are burdened with more anguish during their childhood years, and that pain often remains throughout their adult lives.” On the whole: “A grave reduction in the overall happiness of our nation’s children has occurred, due to the decisions of their parents to divorce.”
As scary as these data are, they are not scare tactics, because they represent our new social normal:
• In 1950, of every 100 children born in America, only 12 were raised inside a non-nuclear family structure during any portion of their childhood. Today, upwards of 60 percent of American children will be raised within a non-nuclear family structure for at least a portion of their childhood.
• Nearly 50 percent of children will experience the breakdown of a parent’s marriage. Nearly 50 percent of these children of divorce then experience the breakdown of a parent’s second marriage.
Importantly, the issue we are investigating extends past children. It affects their parents, too. Consider the evidence below that divorce is physically and mentally rough on their parents.
• Divorced women and men have 5-10 times the psychiatric care rate of their non-divorced counterparts.
• Twenty years after divorce, only 20 percent of people indicate their lives have improved, while 70 percent state that their lives have stayed the same or worsened.
• Divorce is associated with higher rates of adult hospitalization and morbidity.
• Divorced adults have higher rates of chronic alcohol consumption (with corresponding health issues).
• Higher mortality associated with occurrences of cancer and heart disease plague divorced spouses.
• Divorced people report much lower rates of self-satisfaction.
Finally, the issue we are investigating extends past children and their parents. It affects the society that must, in various ways, cope with the social pathologies that appear to have resulted.
The Empire Strikes Back
By now some readers may be shouting: “Correlation is not the same as cause!”
These readers, perhaps alarmed by possible implications they may not like in all these data, nevertheless do a service with their skepticism—bcause they are right. These data do not, in the strictest sense, prove the ill effects of our society’s rapid decrease in its base of nuclear families.
Your authors reply that if one or two or even three of the bullet points presented above exhausted the literature on the tight correlation of nuclear family decline to diminished well-being for children, their divorced parents, and society, skeptics might have a better case. That so many things have marched in lockstep with the decline of nuclear families since 1969 may signal a causal relationship.
Tim Lambert and Jim Pikl also contributed to this commentary. Lambert is the president of the Texas Home School Coalition, and Jim Pikl is a civil rights lawyer, author, and political activist.
This is a commentary submitted and published with the authors’ permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to firstname.lastname@example.org.