Divorce Laws and Family Violence

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States that passed unilateral divorce laws saw total female suicide decline by around 20 percent in the long run.

In 1969, then Governor Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating unilateral divorce in California. Following California's lead, many states subsequently increased access to divorce, making it possible for a married person to seek a divorce without the consent of his or her spouse. Earlier divorce laws typically required either the consent of both parties or a demonstration of marital fault.

In Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress (NBER Working Paper No. 10175), co-authors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers evaluate three measures of family well being -- suicide rates, domestic violence, and murder -- to determine the effects of reforms nationwide that created unilateral divorce laws.

The authors find very real effects on the well being of families. For example, there was a large decline in the number of women committing suicide following the introduction of unilateral divorce, but no similar decline for men. States that passed unilateral divorce laws saw total female suicide decline by around 20 percent in the long run. The authors also find a large decline in domestic violence for both men and women following adoption of unilateral divorce. Finally, the evidence suggests that unilateral divorce led to a decline in females murdered by their partners, while the data reveal no discernible effects for homicide against men.

In a sense, domestic violence may decrease under unilateral divorce laws because this framework makes credible the threat to leave the marriage if abused. If the abuser wishes to continue the marriage, then this threat may be enough to prevent abusive behavior. Likewise, unilateral divorce may offer a credible alternative to suicide for some women.

The option of unilateral divorce action changes marital dynamics, by increasing the bargaining power of the dissatisfied spouse. Prior to unilateral divorce, a spouse always had an option to leave the marriage, but could not remarry without the other spouse agreeing to a divorce, or without the dissatisfied spouse going through a difficult legal process to demonstrate marital fault. Under unilateral divorce, the dissatisfied spouse gains additional bargaining power, since he or she controls both the leaving and remarriage decisions.

The data presented by the authors offers empirical endorsement of the idea that family law provides a potent tool for affecting well being within families.

-- Les Picker