For five expensive years, Beverly Willett refused her cheating husband a divorce. She compares New York's new no-fault divorce to "arranged marriages," where "power rests in one person's hands to vote on behalf of the whole family." Some feminists agree.
Willett was a lawyer who became a stay-at-home mom while her husband's career blossomed. After twenty years, she writes in The Daily Beast, her husband "began having an affair with a twice-divorced lawyer at his new job. A few months later, he left home for good, vowing to get remarried as soon as he got divorced from me. What he didn't realize was, we weren't getting a divorce. Not if I could help it."
Because at the time, New York didn't have no-fault divorce and her husband was at fault, the two were at an impasse unless Willett agreed to sue him for divorce. Which she refused to do, believing in "standing up for marriage and family," and that trying to stay together would benefit their two children.
"My husband said he'd fight me tooth and nail if I didn't give in," Willett writes. "He kept a tight rein on the purse strings, said he'd seek sole custody, and had his lawyers pound me with paper. Crippling weight loss and the task of adjusting to life as a single mom nearly wore me to a nub. Nearly five years I fought to keep our bond from being broken." Her husband eventually had to move to New Jersey and establish residency there in order to unilaterally divorce her.
We were curious about the other side of this story, so we contacted Willett's husband, Ross Charap, an entertainment lawyer who, by the way, has also "done the voices for a number of Japanese anime characters including several on Pokemon." He wrote us,
My children and I have moved on and there is no purpose to be served in engaging tit for tat. Suffice it to say that there are always at least two sides to every story and I agree with many of the comments posted by readers of the article in The Daily Beast.
Fair enough. Most of these comments are along these lines:
But also this:
Defending marriage: it's all about punishing the bastard!
These issues have resonance beyond this rather extreme case. Since Charap and Willett divorced, New York has adopted no-fault divorce, making it the last state to do so. Previously, even couples with low-conflict divorces either had to perjure themselves by inventing a fault or wait through a one-year separation. Unsurprisingly, having held out for as long as she did — though even she seems to see no benefit from the indisputably excruciating process — Willett is against it.
And yet most of the reasons Willett gives against no-fault divorce mostly apply to divorce in general — it reduces lifespan, leaves "women and children... worse off financially." But studies show that after an initial surge from pent-up demand, states that adopt no-fault divorce see no general rise in divorces. The state with the lowest rate of divorce, Massachussetts, adopted no-fault divorce in 1975. (New York was tied for fifth place in 2007.)
Here's the one difference Willett points out that actually applies:
No-fault divorce takes away a woman's bargaining chips when her husband decides he wants to ditch her. No-fault assumes that removing choice from the equation will lead to less acrimony, but that's too simplistic. It assumes the only reason parties would ever hold up a divorce is to angle for money. It tosses aside the notion that one might want to stay married because of one's pledge, or for the sake of the children.
Interestingly, this is a position is shared by Marcia Pappas, president of the New York branch of NOW:
No-fault takes away any bargaining leverage the non-moneyed spouse has. Currently she can say, "If you want a divorce I'll agree, but you have to work out a fair agreement."
That is not "blackmail" as has been claimed by some no-fault proponents. Negotiating the terms of the breakup of a partnership is the way partnerships are dissolved in the business world. Women should have the same protection.
But this is a perspective that assumes a traditional upper-middle class situation, in which the woman has left the paid workforce and the man is dropping her for a newer model. In the same forum, Johns Hopkins professor Andrew J. Cherlin argues that younger women are less vulnerable to this effect than older women, who generally entered into marriage at a time where their role was domestic and their husband's economic. While that model exists and is certainly regrettable when it leaves one spouse disenfranchised, it doesn't reflect other family situations — such as ones in which both spouses work, or in which the wife earns more money, or in less privileged quarters in which the extensive legal process involved is intimidating or seems prohibitively expensive.
And in fact, casting women as the unwilling victims of divorce doesn't reflect the broader reality, as Stephanie Coontz pointed out in June:
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is more often the wife than the husband who is ready to leave. Approximately two-thirds of divorces - including those that come late in life - are initiated by wives. Paula England, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, found that surveys that separately ask divorced wives and husbands which one wanted the divorce confirm that more often it was the woman who wanted out of the marriage.
There are even more concrete ways in which unilateral divorce laws actually help women. A study by Wharton Professor Betsey Stevenson saw a 30 percent decline in domestic violence in states that adopted no-fault divorce. "This decrease was not just because abused women (and men) could more easily divorce their abusers, but also because potential abusers knew that they were more likely to be left," she wrote. Women were also less likely to commit suicide.
It doesn't mitigate the sting of a particular divorce, but in light of all of all this, it's hard to agree that feminists should rally behind no-fault divorce as being bad for all women. If Willett's husband had been able to unilaterally divorce her, it might have gone against her wishes, but it would have spared her family the extended anguish and costs for a marriage that was already dead. As it stood then, she was no more empowered simply by her ability to say no — for a time.
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