Rod Phillips
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The earliest known divorce laws were written on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia around 2000 BCE. Formally or informally, human societies across place and time have made rules to bind and dissolve couples. Inca couples, for example, started with a trial partnership, during which a man could send his partner home. But once a marriage was formalized, there was no getting out of it. Among the Inuit peoples, divorce was discouraged, but either spouse could demand one. or they could exchange partners with a different couple— as long as all four people agreed.

The stakes of who can obtain a divorce, and why, have always been high. Divorce is a battlefield for some of society's most urgent issues, including the roles of church and state, individual rights, and women’s rights.

Religious authorities have often regulated marriage and divorce. Muslims in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia began using the Quran’s rules in the 7th century AD— generally, a husband can divorce his wife without cause or agreement, while a wife must secure her husband’s agreement to divorce him. In Europe, Christian churches controlled divorce from the 11th century on, with the Catholic Church banning it entirely and Protestant churches allowing it in restricted circumstances, particularly adultery.

In the late 18th century, a series of changes took place that would eventually shape divorce laws around the world. Following centuries of religious conflict, Europeans pushed for state governance separate from religious control. Secular courts gradually took over education, welfare, health, marriage— and divorce. The French Revolution ushered in the first of the new divorce laws, allowing men and women to divorce for a number of grounds, including adultery, violence, and desertion, or simply mutual consent.

Though progress was uneven, overall this sort of legislation spread in Europe, North America and some European colonies in the 19th century. Still, women's access to divorce often remained restricted compared to men. Adultery was considered more serious for women— a man could divorce his wife for adultery alone, while a woman would need evidence of adultery, plus an additional offense to divorce her husband. Sometimes this double standard was written into law; other times, the courts enforced the laws unequally. Domestic violence by a man against his wife was not widely considered grounds for divorce until the 20th century. And though new laws expanded the reasons a couple could divorce, they also retained the fundamental ideology of their religious predecessors: that a couple could only split if one person wronged the other in specific ways.

This state of affairs really overstayed its welcome. Well into the 20th century, couples in the U.S. resorted to hiring actors to jump into bed with one spouse, fully clothed, and take photos as evidence of cheating. Finally, in the 1960s and 70s, many countries and states adopted no-fault divorce laws, where someone could divorce their spouse without proving harm, and importantly, without the other’s consent.

The transition from cultural and religious rules to state sanctioned ones has always been messy and incomplete— people have often ignored their governments’ laws in favor of other conventions. Even today, the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize divorces granted by law. In some places, like parts of India, Western-style divorce laws have been seen as a colonial influence and communities practice divorce according to other religious rules. In others, though the law may allow for equal access to divorce, bias in the legal system, cultural stigma, or community pressures can make it far more difficult for certain people, almost always women. And even in the places where women aren’t disadvantaged by law or otherwise, social and economic conditions often make divorce more difficult for women. In the United States, for example, women experience economic loss far more than men after divorce.

At its best, modern no-fault divorce allows people to leave marriages that make them unhappy. But dissolving a marriage is almost never as simple as sending two people their separate ways. What divorcing partners owe each other, and how they manage aspects of a once shared life remain emotionally and philosophically complex issues.