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The history of divorce

Divorce | 15 Jun 2015 2

Divorce is an ever-present facet of modern life. Even if you haven’t gone through it yourself, chances are very high that you know someone who has. Perhaps a family member or a friend. A quick Google News search for “divorce” will, on any given day, no doubt yield numerous headlines about celebrity couples who are bringing their marriages to an end.

Although the end of a marriage is sad, the fact that divorce has become so accessible is a sign of progress. The process of divorce has changed dramatically over the last few decades in England and Wales. Last week I was invited onto BBC London 94.9 to talk about it with presenter Jo Good.

I explained that in the 20s and 30s, the law regarding divorce was predicated on the idea that one party was ‘innocent’ and the other was ‘guilty’. The easiest way to demonstrate this was through adultery, but even this was needlessly complicated. It was not enough to allege infidelity, concrete proof was needed. This led to the rather bizarre trend of one party hiring someone to sleep in the same bed as them at a hotel and arranging for a member of the hotel staff to catch them. The testimony of the hotel worker could then be used to prove adultery and begin the divorce.

One of the most famous people to get a divorce this way was Wallis Simpson. She is best known for marrying King Edward VIII following his abdication from the throne (this precipitated the real-life events which inspired the terrific 2010 film The King’s Speech). She divorced twice prior her relationship with Edward and her second husband had used this method of ‘proof’ in order to bring their marriage to an end.

Believe it or not, this is still an improvement on the divorce law of the late 19th Century. Only men could seek divorce as women were basically still chattel. The only exception to this rule was if the woman could prove that her husband had committed adultery and rape or incest.

However much the situation had improved since then, the divorce law of the 20s and 30s was simply not sustainable. It was easier to get a divorce based on adultery than on the reasons marriages really do break down, so the law changed. In the early 70s, the concept of ‘irretrievable breakdown’ was introduced. This is still in use today. In fact, it’s the only ground for divorce (although you still have to demonstrate cause: such as unreasonable behaviour, adultery, desertion or separation).

Despite the change in the law in the 70s, there were still serious problems with the process. When I was training, people had to literally line up in court to get a divorce. It was all done in open court, and the parties had to tell the judge exactly what conduct had caused the breakdown of the marriage. In these cases, the judge would interrogate the petitioner to make absolutely sure the claim was genuine and there had to be a witness giving evidence. The whole thing was terribly, terribly embarrassing. What’s more, if the judge did not like the evidence they would simply reject the petition. It was not uncommon for such petitioners to leave the court in floods of tears.

Luckily, nowadays this part of the process is all done on paper. You are not supposed to go into copious details on behaviour allegations as it will only make things worse. In short, divorce has become much more civilised. There is even talk of introducing ‘no fault divorce’, which would take blame out altogether, and even taking it out of court altogether and making the whole thing administrative.

To listen to the conversation in full, click here. My interview starts at 13:00. The show also featured Suggs from the band Madness, so you could say that I opened for him!

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. Guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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    1. Andrew says:

      Why do we still pretend that divorce – as opposed to the determination of questions as to money or children – is a judicial process? You fill in the right forms (which may or may not be true or entirely free of exaggeration) and pay the court fees – and out comes a decree absolute.
      It is high time to make the Registrar of Marriage also the Registrar of Divorce. You to the Registrar’s Office, fill in a form, pay a fee (which could be much less) and send a copy to the other party. After a stated period you fill in another form and out comes your divorce. Either party can if necessary then issue a claim for financial relief or concerning the children.
      Why on earth not?

    2. Nordic says:

      Dear Marilyn,
      The divorce process may have moved on (somewhat) since Henry VIII, but it is anything but civilised. You would be hard pressed to come up with a more brutal, confrontative and financially and emotionally destructive process.

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