(CNN) -- In the wake of what some conservatives see as legal victories on the battlegrounds of abortion rights and affirmative action, a number of politicians and influencers are turning their attention to another deep-rooted concept: no-fault divorce.
Right-wing commentators such as Steven Crowder and Matt Walsh have in recent months intensified their complaints that it is too easy to get divorced, especially for women. All states currently have some version of the no-fault divorce law, but Republicans in Texas and Nebraska include dissolving or restricting no-fault divorce in their state parties' political platforms.
In Louisiana earlier this year, members of the state's Republican Party debated official support for dissolving no-fault divorce but made no decision. The lack of legislative attempts to curb this practice has not prevented the abundance of conservative anti-divorce rhetoric, nor the wave of fear from progressives.
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The newly inaugurated speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, has openly opposed no-fault divorce, which allows couples to divorce without proving fault and without both parties agreeing to the separation. In a 2016 sermon, he claimed that it turned the United States into a "completely amoral society."
Although no-fault divorce was first legalized more than 50 years ago, it has long been the subject of scorn in conservative circles, who see it as a danger to the sanctity of marriage and the concept of the American family.
For feminists, human rights advocates, and others, no-fault divorce is an important prop for gender equality and directly addresses issues such as spousal abuse. Many legal minds also view no-fault divorce as a common-sense legal avenue that reduces unnecessary burdens on both courts and couples.
It may not seem political on the surface, but the history of no-fault divorce in the U.S. reveals a clear connection to these social issues and outlines why some feel so adamant about protecting it while others try to tear it down.
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What is no-fault divorce?
No-fault divorce is, as it sounds, a divorce that can be obtained without anyone having to allege or prove that one party's behavior is at fault. Most states also allow wrongful divorce, in which one party can allege grounds such as adultery, abandonment, long-term incarceration, or cruelty.
"Cruelty — and more specifically, causing a spouse unnecessary pain, whether emotional or physical — is often the most common reason for a fault divorce," says Thomas A. Ramuda Jr., a divorce attorney practicing in Colorado. Many no-fault divorces are obtained because of "irreconcilable differences."
From a legal standpoint, no-fault divorce cases tend to be less complex. "When one party alleges that the other is at fault, they have to prove it in court. Proving fault can also affect the outcome of the divorce in terms of custody or visitation," Ramuda explains.
What is the history of no-fault divorce in the United States?
No-fault divorce was first legalized in California in 1969 by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who would eventually become the first U.S. president to be divorced (former President Donald Trump was the second.) By 2010, all states had legalized a no-fault divorce option.
Prior to this option, fault-based divorce was the only recourse to resolve a breakup. This caused complications for couples whose situation, for one reason or another, did not conform to the required legal procedure.
Couples who wanted to divorce were almost forced by law to create some kind of guilt-based scenario. It was not uncommon for couples to concoct scenarios together that feigned adultery, or for one party to move to another state to meet legal requirements for fault claims, such as abandonment. Immigration divorce, in which a couple moved together to a state with no-fault divorce laws, was common.
In fact, these methods were so common that, for many legal experts, a solution such as no-fault divorce was necessary to get the system working again. The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) advocated for no-fault divorce solutions throughout the first half of the 20th century.
In 1961, Matilda Fenberg, a leading member of the NAWL, explained the reasoning behind the group's own no-fault divorce bill proposal and called the current divorce laws "impractical and unsound."
"The purpose of our bill is not to make divorce easier or harder," Fenberg wrote in the group's proposal for a uniform divorce bill. "It is simply substituting truth for deception, common sense for technicalities, and giving the Courts a real opportunity to prevent marital failures through conciliation and treatment, rather than punishing marital failures."
Although the NAWL's efforts for no-fault divorce did not directly bear fruit, their activism also highlighted the special interest women had in divorce law reform.
Melinda Gates and Bill Gates are just one example of the many high-profile couples who have opted for no-fault divorce. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Although no-fault divorce is common today, it's most visible among high-profile couples when a phrase like "irreconcilable differences" makes headlines. When Bill and Melinda Gates divorced in 2021, legal documents stated that the marriage was "irretrievably broken," a variant of no-fault divorce.
Some of the shortest celebrity marriages, such as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries' 72-day union in 2011, ended with "irreconcilable differences" (although, in this case, Humphries alleged the marriage was fraudulent, and the divorce dragged on for nearly two years).
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin famously took a turn to no-fault language with their divorce announcement in 2014, saying they intended to "consciously disengage." (The legal documents filed by Paltrow, in fact, named "irreconcilable differences.")
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What are the advantages of no-fault divorce?
In layman's terms, no-fault divorce facilitates the dissolution of the marriage. Depending on their situation, couples can avoid costly and lengthy litigation, as well as the detrimental effects of having to cast, prove, or defend against fault.
Paulette Rigo, a mediator and certified divorce coach who founded The Better Divorce Academy after their difficult separation, says sometimes couples don't realize there are options for divorce outside of ugly legal battles.
"The legal process is contentious," he told CNN. "There is a plaintiff and a defendant. You have to spend hundreds of dollars per hour on a lawyer. And that seems silly if the two people in the relationship want the same thing. Of course, there are cases that require litigation, but the idea that it has to be that way can be even more destructive for families at a difficult time."
Rigo also said no-fault divorces can also be easier for minors, who are affected by the financial decisions and family environment provided for them by their parents.
Women's rights groups see the no-fault divorce law as a way to make marriage, an institution that has long provided the greatest material benefits to the husband, more equitable for the woman.
Before no-fault divorce, a woman in the United States who was in an abusive or exploitative marriage didn't have many options. Husbands often controlled the family finances, and the social stigma of filing for divorce, not to mention the difficult process of having to prove "fault," was a major deterrent. These problems were further complicated if the husband did not want a divorce.
"Under U.S. law, everyone has the right to divorce, even if their spouse says no," Rigo explains.
Since 1969, studies have shown that no-fault divorce correlates with a reduction in female suicides and intimate partner violence. A 2004 paper by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolvers found an 8% to 16% drop in female suicides after states enacted no-fault divorce laws. They also observed an approximate 30% decrease in intimate partner violence among both women and men, and a 10% decrease in the number of women killed by their partners.
"Unilateral divorce potentially increases the likelihood that a domestic violence relationship will be terminated and transfers bargaining power to the battered person," the study states.
House Speaker Mike Johnson (left) and his wife Kelly attend a mock swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol in 2017. The couple has what's called a "covenant marriage," a religiously influenced marriage option. Credit: Zach Gibson/AP
Why Do Some Want to Eliminate No-Fault Divorce?
Conservative politicians and commentators, along with some religious and social groups, say unilateral divorce degrades the American family unit and negatively affects men, boys and the economy.
"Unilateral no-fault divorce clearly violates the 14th Amendment," Beverly Willet, co-chair of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, wrote in the Washington Examiner earlier this year. "Too often, in family courts, defendants are deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of law."
Some conservative Christians in particular have fought against no-fault divorce because they believe divorce is contrary to the Bible and God-ordained marriage.
President Johnson, who has voiced opposition to no-fault divorce, has also extolled the virtues of what's called "covenant marriage," a religiously influenced marriage option in some states that makes divorce extremely difficult.
Covenant marriages are only legally recognized as an option in Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where Johnson and his wife entered into such marriages. Such unions, modeled after the covenants of religious alliances, can only be broken for specific reasons such as adultery or physical abuse, not unlike grounded divorces.
CNN has reached out to Johnson's office by phone and email for comment.
Statistics show that no-fault divorce does correlate with an initial spike in divorce rates, but the numbers match or even fall below previous rates over time. Data from the 2020 census revealed that the divorce rate in the United States reached its lowest level in 50 years in 2019.
Research does not strongly support the popular conservative claim that separation negatively affects children in a way that staying in a bad marriage would not.
A 2019 study published in World Psychology found that while children of divorced couples may struggle with some negative repercussions, "most children whose parents divorce are resilient and show no obvious psychological problems."
The study adds that there are countless other factors that could affect a divorced child's well-being that have nothing to do with the divorce itself.
"Marital instability does not present a single risk factor, but a cascade of sequelae for children," the study reads.
This conclusion points to another dilemma at the heart of the no-fault divorce debate and public opinion at large: whether divorce itself is a problem, or whether it is a symptom of larger problems within the American marriage institution.