In 1969 the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, signed the first "no-fault" divorce law which made it possible for couples to divorce without first proving the other guilty of adultery, abuse, or other spousal wrongdoing. Within 5 years, the idea caught on and 20 states passed similar laws. In today's courtrooms, "no-fault" divorces are common occurrences initiated by one or both of the litigants in all 50 states.
Ironically, 28 years later, Reagans' formal political party has had a change of heart. Many are calling for more strength in "family values" -- believing that today's family breakdown is the result of the increasing number of families divorcing in the United States year after year. Some politicians might even say that the 38% increase in the divorce rate since 1969 can be blamed on quickie divorces that allow couples an easy way out of a marriage that may not necessarily be over.
Supporters of this counterrevolution add that their main goal is to support the children who are unfortunately caught in what could be the worst emotional trauma of their childhood . Leading the way is Michigan whose legislation, which failed this year by a single vote, sparked a national debate when they called for a "children first" attitude in divorce as well as a return to the traditional fault system of divorce in cases when only one party agrees to the no-fault rationale. In those instances, one party must show fault by proving adultery, desertion, physical or substance abuse or other spousal wrongdoing.
With Michigan advocates leading the way, we once again see a surge in states jumping on the same political bandwagon - with now over 20 states introducing divorce law reforms in 1996.
It is easy to understand and appreciate the trend towards strengthening families and their values - as well as putting emphasis on the emotional, physical and financial well-being of our country's children. But what I cannot understand is why today's lawmakers wish to Band-Aid the problem instead of fixing the source. The culprit is not the divorce itself, or even how quickly it can occur -- but it is, in fact, how the parents handle themselves before, during and after the split that will lay the groundwork for their children's happiness.
By eliminating the "no-fault" divorce statutes, parents will once again be encouraged to become adversaries, pointing fingers at each other and fighting to come out the one and only winner. Manipulated by attorneys, dredging up private information and denied the right to decide their fate -- parents who enter the courtroom as opponents will most likely continue this winner-take-all attitude towards each other for the rest of their lives. This is where the breakdown in today's families becomes evident.
Instead of taking backward steps, legislators need to look at the great strides that are being made today with divorced families. Mediation and counseling are by far more beneficial, with success rates increasing in areas where mediation is mandatory prior to the first courtroom appearance. The hope is that couples will be able to resolve their own differences with a trained neutral third party who encourages them to establish rules for post-divorce parenting conduct, custody arrangements and, sometimes, child support.
Mostly, mediation is far from adversarial because its success depends upon both parents' cooperation and desire to do what is best for their children. Generally, because both parents have been given the opportunity to be heard as well as to express desires for parenting schedules, many couples do not relitigate their cases. An added bonus is that with a majority of these cases, child support is paid, fewer parents are denied visitation and a co-parenting plan is often adopted.
In reality, we cannot stop families from breaking up. Legislators cannot step into people's homes and stop them from calling it quits. Eliminating the "no-fault" divorce will not cause parents to suddenly mold themselves into the "ideal family" that these lawmakers are apparently hoping for. And by putting an obstacle in the path of marital termination -- one will not cause a divorcing couple to decide to "try it again." Obstacles often cause more frustration for the family -- adding even more discord and confusion to an already emotional wreckage. By eliminating the "no-fault" divorce, legislators will not lower the nation's divorce rate. They will only create more problems and finger-pointing for people whose lives are already in turmoil.
If lawmakers want to help families in conflict, they should offer inexpensive counseling options, children's guardian ad litems, step-family counseling, more court-appointed mediation and educational classes. They should continue the fight for child support, assist single parents with subsidized daycare and initiate peer-discussion groups for children of divorce within schools and communities. Courts should encourage co-parenting, education, as well as transition programs for post-divorce families and step families -- and make the ending of a marriage a family issue -- rather than a legal one.
The solution is to advocate parental quality, fairness and a spirit of cooperation: to understand the dynamics of the divorcing family and to accept their limitations and frustrations with their current situation -- therefore assisting them in their healing. One needs to teach such parents how to compromise and communicate rather than burden them further by insisting that they blame the other, compete, and become even stronger enemies than before. By focusing on the healing, adjustment and parental responsibilities that are attached to a family divorce, parents, their families and especially their children will grown into a positive post-divorce family that will be strong, healthy and secure.
Adversaries are for basketball courts, not courtrooms or within the walls of a child's home. Divorced parents need to be able to communicate, relate, give-and-take and move on. Post-divorced parenting requires patience, understanding, swallowing pride at times and sometimes having to stand up for yourself. And when a child is shown that two people at odds (and quite possibly with pure hatred for each other) can put aside their differences for the benefit of a single child, that child is shown and raised with understanding, forgiveness, respect and communication. That child is shown that there are no obstacles when it comes to a parent's love. And within my own "divorced/step" family, love and respect for every family member are our most prized family values.