Catholic Campaign: America’s Divorce Revolution Has Failed

It was the bombshell liberals dreaded: seventeen thousand words packed in an explosive cover that read, “Dan Quayle Was Right: The Harmful Effects of Divorce on Children.”

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s now-famous cover story in the April 1993 issue of The Atlantic shattered many liberal myths about divorce. Her article amassed research showing how divorce severely disrupts the lives of children. Compared with children in intact families, the kids of divorced parents are six times more likely to be poor; twice as likely to have emotional problems; more at risk to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, to get in trouble with the law, and to be sexually abused.

The incidence of divorce has climbed about 30 percent in the last twenty-five years, and much of the increase can be pegged to “no-fault” divorce laws that many states passed in the early 1970s. California pioneered such legislation in 1969. Under no-fault laws, a divorce is granted even if only one spouse wants it. But no-fault is a social experiment that has failed. Above all, it has failed women and children. Women’s living standards plummet, on average, 30 percent following a divorce.

Consider the experience of a forty-seven-year-old suburban Detroit woman, who recently told a New York Times reporter just how much existing no-fault divorce laws work against women like her.

“Instead of starting a career for myself, I helped my husband get his business started. I had four children. I made the beds. I cooked the meals. I cleaned the house. I kept my marriage vows. Now I find myself divorced in midlife with no career. My husband makes $100,000 a year, and we are struggling to get by on a quarter of that. Does this sound like a fair system?”

Because of the terrible impact of easy divorce on women and children, state lawmakers are taking a second look at their no-fault laws. In Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and a half-dozen other states, Republicans and Democrats alike are seeking to make the decision to get divorced a more considered one.

A national leader in turning back no-fault divorce has been Jessie Dalman, a Republican serving in her third term in Michigan’s House of Representatives. Earlier this year, at a news conference on St. Valentine’s Day, Dalman unveiled a package of twelve bills that would overhaul Michigan’s 1972 no-fault divorce law. Hers are the boldest and most comprehensive proposals in the nation.

Dalman’s bills would deny a divorce if only one spouse wants it—unless that spouse could prove infidelity, desertion, alcoholism, physical or mental abuse, or the existence of other serious problems. Her legislation would also require participation in a pre-divorce program for all parties in an uncontested divorce where young children are involved. In addition, divorcing parents would have to establish a parenting plan for their children, as well as an alimony schedule with a health care plan.

Dalman’s legislation also seeks to discourage impulsive marriages. There would be a financial incentive for the man and woman to go through counseling before their wedding day. For those who get counseling, the marriage license would cost $20. For those who do not, it would cost $100. The proposal also would require a thirty-day waiting period before saying “I do.”

Michigan Governor John Engler, a conservative Catholic, is supportive of Dalman’s overall aims. He believes it is essential that our society rethink the no-fault revolution. Over the past quarter century, easy divorce laws have contributed to tearing apart American families. As a society, it is time to focus more on the needs of children and less on the desires of parents. We must make it harder for women to be victimized by a no-fault system that gives all the legal clout to the party that wants to break the marriage contract. Governor Engler has pledged to sign legislation that strengthens families, protects children, and makes the marriage contract worth more than the paper it’s written on.

Dan Quayle was indeed right—the divorce revolution has been a failure, and the majority of Americans know it. The national debate is shifting from divorce to marriage and the need to rebuild a family culture based on enduring marital relationships. Now, Michigan and several other states are at the forefront of a pro-family counter-revolution. Let us hope that the era of no-fault divorce is headed for the trash-heap of history.


  • Gleaves Whitney

    Gleaves Whitney is the director of Grand Valley State University's Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. He has authored or edited 14 books. Whitney is also a senior scholar at the Center for the American Idea in Houston, Texas, and he is the first senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, and journals.

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