I’m a HUGE fan of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, so much so that I actually belong to a Facebook group for Handmaid’s Tale fanatics. In the group we talk about all kinds of theories and spoilers for the show, and we also post real-world political developments that members believe are relevant to the show’s storyline and premise.
Yesterday, a member of our group posted a link to this story from The Guardian describing how a British woman had taken her argument asking for a divorce from her husband all the way to UK’s Supreme Court. However, because her husband isn’t agreeing to the divorce, and because the woman apparently failed to describe sufficient fault on the part of her husband, the court upheld lower court decrees that the woman must remain married to her husband, despite what she describes as a totally loveless 40 year marriage in which she is profoundly unhappy.
Tini petitioned for divorce, alleging that her husband had prioritised his work over their home life, his treatment of her lacked love and affection, he was often moody and argumentative, he had disparaged her in front of others, and that she had grown apart from him.
Hugh denied the allegations about his behaviour, and while admitting that their relationship had never been – in the paraphrase of Lord Wilson – emotionally intense, he said the couple had learned to “rub along”. He said he still hoped his wife would change her mind and return to live with him.
Under the UK’s current fault-based marriage laws, these are the only grounds that qualify for a divorce if one party disagrees:
- Unreasonable behavior, which is described as physical violence, verbal abuse, drunkenness or drug taking, or something called “refusing to pay for housekeeping.”
- Desertion, which is described as leaving without your consent for the last two of 2.5 years.
- You’ve been separated for two years and the husband or wife agrees to the divorce in writing.
- You’ve been separated at least five years, even if the husband or wife disagrees.
In other words, it’s no cakewalk to get a divorce in England if your spouse doesn’t agree to the divorce. And unless you’ve been separated for five or more years, you are literally forced to allege rather terrible behavior on the part of your spouse even if the issue is one where you simply no longer feel the love for your spouse that you feel is necessary to support a healthy marriage (and life).
And while the “verbal abuse” grounds for divorce is spelled out by the UK government as “threats and insults,” how can you prove that this is actually happening? You might claim that your spouse is belittling and insulting you in the privacy of your home, but if he says that this isn’t happening and that he doesn’t agree to a divorce, you’re simply stuck. In the case noted above, Tini alleges that Hugh “disparages” her in front of others, but this apparently didn’t qualify as “threats” or “insults” to the judges hearing her case.
With regard to physical abuse, proving that you’re being abused to a judge or panel of judges could be extremely difficult. What if your spouse routinely slaps you or chokes you but his abuse doesn’t leave any marks or you’ve been hiding the evidence of the physical abuse until you become brave enough to file for divorce? If you go to court and petition for a divorce on the ground of this “unreasonable behavior,” and your spouse denies it, how can you prove it? How can you prove that he tried to smother you with a pillow or that he knocked your head against the wall six months earlier? If your spouse refuses to agree to a divorce and the court doesn’t believe you when you tell them that you’ve been physically abused, you will be forced to remain married to your abuser. And for many abusive spouses, seeing their wife or husband forced to remain married to him or her would likely be extremely gratifying.
The UK’s list of grounds for divorce also doesn’t mention anything about child abuse. What if your spouse is routinely calling your child or children demeaning names, or screaming at them until they cry. Or worse, what if he or she hits or otherwise physically or even sexually abuses your child? Shouldn’t this behavior toward the children in a marriage be grounds for a legal divorce?
Additionally, the list of acceptable reasons for divorce in the UK doesn’t include emotional abuse. What if your spouse refuses to have sex with you for years? Shouldn’t this be grounds for divorce given that it’s called “the marriage bed” for a reason? What if your spouse continually threatens to kill him or herself but refuses to get any psychiatric help? How long should you have to live with this form of emotional abuse? And the list goes on. The fact that emotional abuse isn’t included in the list of grounds for an at-fault divorce in the UK is very disturbing.
Here in the U.S., while many states impose a waiting period before a divorce is final, every state now allows for no-fault divorce. This means that partners who want out of a marriage can obtain a divorce without alleging specific fault on the part of his or her spouse, and without the express consent of the other spouse. Certainly there are situations where one party wishes to remain married while the other wants to remain wedded, but as my husband said when we were discussing this today, remaining in a marriage where the other party absolutely doesn’t want to be there would be its own kind of special hell.
Some who oppose no-fault divorce in the United States believe that allowing one spouse to go for a divorce even when the other spouse doesn’t want the break-up makes divorce too easy, leading to a higher number of divorces. There has indeed been a rise in the number of divorces since states began allowing no-fault divorces, starting with California in 1969. However, it’s also believed that no-fault divorce laws have lessened rates of domestic violence because abused spouses can now more easily exit a dangerous marriage without having to go through the expensive and emotionally draining experience of a trial in which she has to prove the abuse to a judge or panel of judges, only to face the possibility of being denied her divorce, thus being forced to remain married to someone who beats her.
The one criticism of no-fault divorce that rings true to me is that these types of divorces can leave stay at home parents at a significant financial disadvantage. Let’s say that you’ve been married for twenty years, and during that time, you and your husband had agreed that you would stay home with the four children you have together. If at the end of that 20 years during which you’ve been out of the workforce, your husband suddenly announces that he wants a divorce, you could end up with a serious financial problem. Unless the judge handling your divorce awards you significant alimony or you are able to get a job and arrange childcare, your standard of living is likely to significantly decrease. As far as child support goes, a growing number of states use a specific formula to determine child support, a formula that takes into consideration a number of factors, including the relative incomes of both parents. If you have no income because you’re a stay at home parent, you are likely to receive a higher support amount for the children you’re raising. However, if the children spend an equal or significant amount of time with their father, the amount of child support that you receive may not actually be enough to care for your minor children. A judge in a case like this is likely to recommend to the spouse who has been staying home with the kids that she get a job and get back into the workforce, but as anyone who hasn’t worked for some amount of time can tell you, especially if you didn’t receive a college degree and/or are over the age of about 45, finding a job that will actually cover the bills can be incredibly difficult.
There’s no doubt that in situations like these – where one spouse leaves another who has been out of the workforce for some period of time – that no-fault divorce can raise a host of problems. However, many of these problems can be ameliorated with sufficient alimony awards plus truly equitable child support directives. The answer isn’t to force a couple to remain married.
The bottom line is that no one should be required to remain married just as no one should be required to get married in the first place. Marriage is an agreement that two people make jointly. It only works when both parties remain in that agreement. Most marriages have their ups and downs, including, for many couples, some truly rough patches. But people work through these tough times and ultimately stay married only when BOTH parties want to remain in the marriage. When one spouse wants out, the other one shouldn’t have the ability to force her to stay against her will. That’s its own type of abuse.