Divorce on demand to make ending marriage easy

Wedded bliss: 600 years after The Arnolfini Portrait was painted, its subjects remain unknown.

Yesterday, the UK announced a divorce law revolution that would make it easier for couples to split without a painful “blame game”. Is the world’s most revered institution on its last legs?

Yesterday, the UK announced that it would be making the biggest changes to its divorce laws in 50 years.

Under the current rules, one spouse must accuse the other of adultery or “unreasonable behaviour” in order to get a quick divorce. Soon, this will be scrapped, and they will simply have to state that the marriage has broken down.

Spouses will also no longer be allowed to refuse a divorce if their partner wants one. “It cannot be right that our outdated law creates or increases conflict between divorcing couples,” said Justice Secretary David Gauke.

Although divorce rates are at their lowest since the 1970s in the UK, experts say this could be because fewer people are getting married in the first place.

Are we witnessing the end of marriage?

In Anglo-Saxon times in Britain, marriages were mostly diplomatic arrangements or trade deals. The Catholic Church declared marriage a sacrament in the 12th century, tying it to religion. In 1552, Thomas Cranmer wrote the formal vows — for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health — in the Book of Common Prayer.

And yet, as the author Vicki Larson points out, these vows meant something different “when people didn’t live all that long”; the average life expectancy in Tudor times was 37. In Colonial America, the sociologist Stephanie Coontz estimates that the average marriage lasted under 12 years.

Perhaps marriage was just not built for the life expectancies of the 21st century, Larson argues. Rather than letting it die out, why not change the terms?

In the last decade, some countries have proposed alternatives to lifelong contracts. Germany floated a seven-year marriage. In Mexico City, law-makers suggested that couples choose the length of their own contract, with a minimum of two years.

These suggestions did not make it into law. But in 2014, a survey in America found that 43% of millennials supported the idea of a “beta” marriage which can be dissolved after two years. “It’s not that they’re entirely non-committal,” said the study’s author. “It’s just that they’re nimble and open to change.”

For better, for worse

Marriage does not have to be until death, say those behind the movement. Most people will have more jobs and experiences in their lifetime than ever before. There is time to do so much more. Why subject people to a complicated divorce when they have simply moved on to a new phase of life?

But there is romance in the idea of committing forever, others reply. Whatever the history, today most people marry for love, and the idea of “forever” is part of what makes that special. Relationships should not be treated like business contracts to be negotiated every few years — they go deeper than that.

You Decide

  1. Would you prefer a “beta” period before your marriage became official?
  2. Will marriage still be relevant in 50 years?

Activities

  1. Almost 500 years have passed since Thomas Cranmer first wrote the English marriage vows. Write a new version for the 21st century.
  2. Choose a country and research its marriage customs. Write 300 words explaining their history.

Some People Say...

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The new rules will create a “no fault” system in which a couple can divorce after six months without accusing each other of unreasonable behaviour. Currently, this cannot happen unless they have been separated for two years. If one partner objects to the divorce, their partner must wait for five years. The new rules were announced by the justice secretary yesterday after a 12-week public consultation. They will apply in England and Wales once Parliament makes them law.
What do we not know?
What the response will be. Although the consultation found broad public support for ending the “blame game” between couples and no longer keeping people “trapped” in unhappy marriages, there could be objections from religious groups on the grounds that it will make divorce easier.

Word Watch

Lowest
According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 8.4 divorces in ever 1,000 heterosexual marriages in the UK in 2017. This was the lowest rate since 1972.
Sacrament
A Christian ceremony that is believed to be especially important.
Book of Common Prayer
Before the English Reformation, when Henry VIII split his country from the Catholic Church, prayers and sermons at church were given in Latin. The Book of Common Prayer laid out the new services in English for the first time.
Colonial America
Between 1492 and 1763; this was the period of European rule in America, before it won independence.
Life expectancies
In the UK, the average life expectancy is 81. Globally, the average is 71, although it is generally higher in more developed countries.
Millennials
The name given to the generation born between the 80s and early 2000s. In this survey, it was defined as 18 to 34-year-olds.
Beta
Not, in this case, referring to the second letter of the Greek alphabet. Instead, this refers to the secondary phase of software development, when a program is tested for bugs.

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