Divorce in the Nineteenth Century

When we think about divorce, we usually have the idea of Before and After no-fault divorce, which began around 1969. This led to a huge rise in divorce.

This is the “crude divorce rate,” which is a simple ratio between the number of marriages and divorces in a given year. It is about 50%. But, it is close to the “longitudinal divorce rate,” which is the number of marriages at a given time (today, let’s say) that will fail eventually.

We usually have fond feelings for the 1950s, as a time when marriage was strong and family values prevailed. Nevertheless, the divorce rate then was about 25%, and unmarried teen pregnancy (the result of the mass embrace of “dating”) was a major problem.

Here is how it looks in the longer term:

The Marriage Rate was pretty stable throughout, until a dropoff beginning around 1990. This was mostly a matter of delaying marriage, since even then, around 92% of all White men and women got married eventually. The decline in divorce since 1990 has largely been a function of fewer marriages, leaving the crude divorce rate unchanged around 50%.

But, we see a long rise in divorce from 1870 to a plateau in the 1950s and 1960s. Here are some detailed statistics on divorce in the 1860-1940 period.

Here we see, for example, that in the 1870s, there were about 9.0 marriages per 1000 people; and about 0.3 divorces, for a “crude divorce rate” of 3.33%. By 1900, the “First Sexual Revolution” was already beginning, and divorces had become more common. But even then, in the 1900-1910 decade, there were about 10 marriages per 1000 people; and 0.8 divorces, for a crude divorce rate of 8%.

In other words, a healthy Christian society that practices Courtship, and has fairly strict restrictions on divorce, might have a divorce rate around 5%. Which is a lot lower than 50%, or 25%.

Among other things, this would tend to make even “successful” marriages more placid, since the threat or possibility of divorce is far more remote. Men and women would have to get along.

In short, it is a proposition that men could accept. They would have a pretty good chance, at least, of not getting blown up in divorce court. They would keep their children. They may end up sleeping in separate bedrooms from their wives; but, so what. In those days, women were wives, or prostitutes. Prostitutes, at least, did not pose a threat to the family. A man does not get divorced for a prostitute.

Then as now, women were the primary instigators of divorce. Although divorce was rarer, it was, nevertheless, possible. The typical legal structure was that a divorce required either mutual consent, or provable evidence of adultery or cruelty of some substantial degree.

The primary reasons for divorce were adultery, cruelty and abandonment. But, in those days, these accusations had to be proved. There had to be “fault.” Abandonment was probably the practical solution to a lot of irreconcilable marriages. Either the man or the woman just upped and left, leaving the legal status to be resolved at some later date. But, remember that only about 5% of marriages ended up in one of these categories.

Published by proprietor

Happily married, with children.

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