For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Spurred on by Resolution’s campaign in support of it, the subject of introducing a no-fault divorce system is very much up for discussion these days. The argument in favour of no-fault divorce centres upon the unnecessary animosity caused by the need to blame your spouse for the breakdown of the marriage, and the damage that does to the chances of other matters, in particular arrangements for children, being resolved amicably.
Of course there is another side to every argument, and one point that I’ve seen raised recently is that arguing over who was responsible for the breakdown of the marriage can actually have a cathartic effect, such that arguments over other issues such as arrangements for children and finances are reduced. In other words, fault-based divorce can actually be a good thing when it comes to resolving those issues.
I’ve been following the debate over no-fault divorce for longer than I care to remember, and I’ve seen this argument, or variants on it, raised previously. The idea behind the argument seems to run like this. When a marriage breaks down there can be a lot of animosity. Blaming your spouse for the breakdown of the marriage acts as a release valve for that animosity, causing it to drain away. Once the animosity has gone, the parties can discuss matters relating to children and finances in an anger-free environment, thereby making it more likely that they will agree those matters.
It’s an attractive idea, but is there any truth in it?
The first question to ask is: Is it really cathartic to blame your spouse for the marriage breakdown? It is certainly true that much of the animosity surrounding divorce can have its roots in one party feeling wronged by the other, who they see as entirely responsible for the breakdown of the marriage. Of course, it is extremely rare that a marriage breakdown is entirely the fault of one party (this is one of the arguments put forward by the proponents of no-fault divorce), but that doesn’t stop some from having the perception that they are blameless. So yes, I suppose the vindication that they feel from proving that the other is the ‘guilty party’ can have some effect, although whether that will completely satisfy their need for ‘revenge’ I rather doubt.
And even if blaming the other party is cathartic, what about the other party? Blame is only cathartic for one, unless we have the awful situation of cross-petitions for divorce, with each party blaming the other and arguing the issue of who was responsible for the breakdown of the marriage in lengthy and expensive court proceedings. Is that what those in favour of fault-based divorce want?
And then there is the question of where attributing blame can lead. Surely, in many cases it is only likely to increase conflict? After all, being told that you were solely responsible for the breakdown of the marriage when you know you were not is unlikely to be the best way to bring you to the negotiating table in the right frame of mind to reach an amicable settlement.
The final question is: Would it really reduce conflict on children and finances? The answer to this, I think, is a resounding ‘no’. Apart from the increased animosity, many of the arguments raised in connection with the divorce are highly likely to be reprised in connection with sorting out arrangements for the children and finances. For example bad behaviour by the other party will be raised in relation to that party’s suitability for looking after the children, and bad conduct by the other party may be argued as a reason for a better financial settlement.
The idea that blame in divorce can reduce conflict on other issues is alluring but rather naïve. I suppose it could work in some rare cases, but when there is animosity on marriage breakdown the feelings usually run so deep that they are unlikely to be assuaged by blaming the other party for the breakdown. And even if there is a catharsis in laying blame then it is usually only for one party, often leaving the other party even more angry than before.
The argument in favour of no-fault divorce is clearly the right one, and the sooner we have a proper, workable, no-fault system, the better for all concerned. And that includes not just the parties and their children, but also the highly-strained family justice system itself, which is currently struggling to deal with so many contested matters.