Divorce Returns As Legislative Issue

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The Republican “social engineers” are at it again this year.

Two Oklahoma lawmakers have introduced legislation for this upcoming session, which begins today, that would make it more difficult to get a divorce here.

Both bills, which I will discuss later in detail, are unwise attempts at addressing a chronic issue in the state, which has “extraordinarily high rates of divorce among both men and women compared to the rest of the country . . .” The bills seem overly punitive and take away, to use GOP jargon, a person’s “freedom” to change their life and perhaps their children’s lives for the better on their own timetable given their own particular circumstances.

The high divorce rate here, whether one considers it a problem or not, is mainly due to people who shouldn’t be getting married in the first place. Some of these people are rushed into marriage by a conservative culture that stigmatizes people who simply live together—a no-no, when it comes to certain dominant religious denominations here—while romanticizing wedding mania. Add to this the conservatives’ refusal to offer comprehensive sexual education in schools and our low college graduate rates, and divorce and more divorce is what you get.

The larger point is that any tweaking of our marriage and divorce process, if it even needs tweaking and I don’t think it does, except for allowing same-sex marriage, should start long before any marriage even happens.

House Bill 2398, introduced by Arthur Hulbert of Fort Gibson, would extend the waiting period for the granting of a divorce to six months instead of three months. According to a media report, Hulbert thinks the extra time will “give them time to rethink reconciliation.”

It would also give people more time to argue, grow embittered and jockey for legal position, which creates even more tension. Many times, people just need to move on, and that includes couples with children. Let’s be clear that it is, generally speaking, not always in the best interest for children that their parents stay married.

Hulbert’s bill includes exceptions for extreme cases involving abuse and other things, and some might view it as innocuous, but it falsely presupposes that the high divorce rate is because of the legal process rather than the conservative religious culture here and low college graduation rates. The matter of a divorce is a holistic issue, and making this adjustment in the legal process only inflicts harm. If a couple wants to reconcile, then they will reconcile.

Another bill, HB 3115, would eliminate simple incompatibility as a reason for divorce. This bill, introduced by Sean Roberts of Hominy, has less chance of passing than Hulbert’s bill, but with GOP-dominance right now in the legislature, anything can happen.

The proposed bill lists a host of legal reasons one could use to get a divorce, such as accusing a spouse of abandonment, adultery and, here’s an interesting one, “gross neglect of duty.” Essentially, it eliminates the concept of no-fault divorce, and almost ensures couples must argue and adopt combative positions. This, of course, would not get lost on most children of the divorcing parents.

The arguments in favor or against no-fault divorce are outlined here in this academic article. The larger point is that the concept of no-fault divorce or incompatibility has been around for decades in this country and going back now and ensuring each divorce is adversarial accomplishes nothing, if the aim is to create strong marriages. Some divorces, usually those in which there is a lot of property and money involved, are always going to be contentious. Using incompatibility as a reason for divorce, while not completely removing tension, can and does make things smoother.

Most people would probably agree that what’s most important in divorce is ultimately the welfare of children from marriages, but neither of these bills directly addresses that issue. Hulbert’s bill is a gesture of wishful thinking that takes away people’s rights to a reasonable time period for a divorce, and Roberts’ bill would throw us back into acrimony and legal muddles.

Neither bill comes even close to addressing the issue that the way to reduce the divorce rate is to deal with it before people even get married. That means allowing comprehensive sexual education in our schools and increasing our college graduate rate. We should also work to create tolerance for different approaches to life relationships, and we should embrace same-sex marriage here. It’s blatant hypocrisy for conservatives to fight same-sex marriage in a state with such high divorce rates. In addition, if the legal process of marriage and ensuing divorce is what’s so important, as implied by these two bills, then everyone should be granted equal standing under the law as guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Here’s a slogan we might use in this state: “Go to college first, then get married.” Or how about just “College before marriage”?

No, it’s not a panacea, but distributing bumper sticks with those slogans on them and adopting their edict would probably do as much, if not more, as these two proposed bills to reduce the state’s high divorce rate.