Hi! For a while now, we’ve been talking about complementarianism, a sexist ideology held by mostly right-wing Christian culture warriors. One major plank of that ideology involves a vicious hatred of no-fault divorce. Today, I’ll show you what that plank looks like and why complementarians hold to it so tightly. Then, I’ll show you why, in their eyes at least, they really should hate no-fault-divorce.
First, we need to talk about complementarianism itself–and how it relates to the Christian culture wars. Strap in! This topic proved to be quite a wild ride.
(BTW: if this topic interests you, I consider this Cambridge Core journal article recommended reading.)
The Origin of Complementarianism.
Back in the 1970s, right-wing Christianity began to morph and evolve into the super-politicized, super-polarized juggernaut that we know and loathe today. Initially, the leaders of this end of Christianity sought to end the advances of the Civil Rights Movement. Outside of the Deep South, however, most people rejected hardcore racism.
After a short period of flailing around, those leaders hit upon hardcore sexism instead. That sexism manifested as bitter, vehement opposition to abortion rights.
And what do ya know? That notion sold marvelously well to pretty much everyone.
However, it wasn’t enough for some Christians. The leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and groups like it needed to stem a rising tide of female leaders in their denomination. Feminism whittled away at their male privilege. OH NOES!!!
Eventually, they figured out how to stop women’s advancement dead in its tracks.
They did it through complementarianism.
A Quick Overview of Complementarianism.
Complementarians believe that their god created men and women to serve totally different purposes.
According to their beliefs, this supposed god created men to lead groups, nations, and families. Men also fight wars and work for pay outside the home. By contrast, their imagined god created women to serve men and do family stuff.
Complementarians reject the idea of female leaders, as well as the notion of men devoting themselves to their families or serving women. In particular, they mock and scorn men who act too feminine.
To these Christians, only disaster and heartbreak can follow men or women who drive outside their divinely-designated lanes. When men and women submit to this supposedly-divine plan, runs the claim, they’re happier, healthier, and more productive. Of course, according to this belief, their relationships with each other and their social groups also supposedly do better too.
Though their belief defies established scientific consensus in any number of directions, like there being more than just two genders, complementarians think these differences have a biological basis. Therefore, even non-Christians need to be forced, if necessary, to adhere to the supposedly-divine plan.
The Post Hoc Culture-War Doctrine.
With this doctrine, Christians now fought their culture wars in earnest.
Obviously, abortion rights had to be eliminated. Their supposed god’s purpose for women required them to procreate and become culture-warrior-approved mothers. Thus, complementarians invented the mythical abortion regret syndrome decades ago to rationalize their control-grabs over women. They only acted out of deep concern, y’all! That’s all! See, see, they knew that those silly, fuzzy-brained women just had no idea how bad abortion was. So they didn’t want women to go murder pweshus baybeez and then get all sad about it! Worse, they didn’t want their own boners to get all sad about abortion!
Women could not be allowed into positions giving them any control over men. Their supposed god would get cry and throw a tantrum. Similarly, complementarians insisted that women naturally hated ordering men around. These Christians already knew they hated taking orders from women. It wudn’t nachurl! So that was that: win/win!
Same-sex marriage had to be outlawed forever. Men marrying men and women marrying women! It all totally violated their imaginary friend’s plan for humans. In such relationships, nobody prospered. Two men? They lacked their “helpmeets.” Two women? Neither possessed a Divine Leadership Chip. How miserable! Plus, they couldn’t procreate naturally together. As we all know, that’s the main reason their god created marriage.
Within marriage itself, complementarian men secured their power-bases. Their idolized doctrine granted them complete dominance within their homes. Husbands blatantly privileged their leisure time above their wives’ own. Many began ruling their households with iron fists–financially and emotionally abusing wives without hesitation or hindrance. If any wives complained, men had complete assurance that their churches would always take the men’s sides.
This one doctrine granted the men of the culture wars everything they ever wanted.
Everything in the world.
Women’s Only Escape.
Divorce represented women’s only real escape from intolerable marriages. However, the men controlling most countries’ legal and legislative systems had long ago ensured the difficulty of obtaining that escape. They created the system, then gamed it to the point where women couldn’t meaningfully escape their grasp.
In many areas, women had to jump a lot of hoops to gain a divorce–including gaining the permission of their husbands to end the union. If a husband felt amenable to the breakup, things ran smoothly. If not, however, he could make his wife’s life hellish. We can see hints of that hell in “get abuse” among Orthodox Jews. Men, of course, have always had a much easier time jumping the hoops their fellow men have set in place; these hoops exist for the have-nots, not the haves.
(Incidentally, abortion runs along similar lines. Anti-abortion laws affect poor women most.)
Most states had a list of reasons they considered virtuous enough for a woman to gain a unilateral divorce. Adultery, desertion, and physical abuse often featured on these lists. The law required women to prove beyond reasonable doubt that one or more of these things was happening. And they had to prove it in the context of a humiliating civil court trial. Often, one or both spouses committed perjury to prevent or smooth the entire process!
(Incidentally, before Roe v. Wade, abortion requests ran along extremely similar lines.)
OH NOES! The Divorce Rate!
Christians often blame no-fault divorce for the skyrocketing divorce rate going on around that time. However, Cambridge’s Law and History Review disagrees.
After reviewing the available resources, their scholars think the opposite. No-fault divorce, that journal tells us, “followed rather than led the long-term rise in America’s divorce rates.” People had already noticed that rise before the “no-fault ‘revolution’ of the 1970s.” And Nevada had been refining its laws to become a mecca for divorce-seeking Americans since the early years of the 1900s (and hit its stride in 1931, when it lowered the residency requirement for petitioners to a downright-shocking six weeks).
In fact, that rise began after World War II–which definitely contradicts complementarians’ view of history. It fell again in the 1950s, when evangelical leaders began agitating against “godless Communism” during the deliberately-engineered moral panic now known as the Red Scare. During that moral panic, Christian leaders pushed for–and obtained–a sort of return-to-domesticity. They insisted that this return to Mayberry-style communities and family lives would cure all kinds of social ills and worries.
And for a lot of people, especially men, the moral panic did exactly that.
For others, especially women, it really didn’t. Within that cozy, gauzy paradigm, divorce became stigmatized and the women seeking it were humiliated and harshly judged regardless of how virtuous-seeming their cases were.
(Incidentally, abortion works along very similar lines today.)
The Advent of No-Fault Divorce.
The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) began agitating for no-fault divorce laws around the 1950s. Though they had earlier championed a few other causes as well, they recognized the overwhelming importance of no-fault divorce. They revolutionized the American Bar Association first, creating within it the Family Law subgroup. And they began to press for laws that would be “therapeutic” for couples by making divorce easier and less expensive to pursue.
Male-dominated power structures tried for years to ignore NAWL’s efforts. But these activists persisted. Finally, in 1969 California’s governor at the time, Ronald Reagan (yes!), signed into law the country’s first no-fault divorce bill, “The Family Law Act.” Other states rapidly followed suit. The last two holdouts were South Dakota (1985) and New York (2010).
Now, every state allows no-fault divorce. That means that neither men nor women need to gain the permission, assent, or approval of their spouse before initiating and obtaining a divorce. Some states still allow both no-fault and at-fault divorce, but most people don’t bother with going through an at-fault trial. Many states don’t allow at-fault divorce at all.
And Christian culture warriors lost their ever-lovin’ MINDS over these huge changes in family law.
The Benefits of No-Fault Divorce.
Studies have shown that no-fault divorce doesn’t impact divorce rates much in the United States. In the short term, divorce rates rise–likely as a response to bottled-up need in the market. But they settle down again in the long term.
(Incidentally, legalizing abortion similarly doesn’t meaningfully impact abortion rates. Legalizing abortion just keeps women from dying, that’s all.)
Other studies discover a link between at-fault divorce and domestic violence. No-fault divorce lowers women’s risk of suicide, domestic violence, and spousal homicide. Others target at-fault divorce for keeping poor women locked in marriages they can’t afford to escape, which is an outcome that those opposing at-fault divorce cannot meaningfully address.
South Carolina, for example, still allows at-fault divorce. It also suffers from one of the highest rates of domestic-violence murder in the entire country–even while domestic violence rates plummet nationwide. The state has at least one animal shelter in every one of its 46 counties, but only 18 domestic-violence shelters for women trying to escape abusive partners.
(Incidentally, in most states in America we discover a similar dearth of clinics able to provide abortion care. The situation has driven about 100,000 women in Texas to self-induce the abortions they need.)
Covenant Marriage: a Backlash Effort.
Seeking to regain their power, however, has proven difficult for complementarians. Few people in or out of their tribe care to revive the dark days of at-fault divorce.
It made perfect sense to me, then, when I first heard about their attempts to establish covenant marriage instead. Adding something to existing laws seems easier than reverting a law granting more freedom to its former, less-free condition. In this case, couples choosing this marriage type must endure a lot of other requirements–and way more onerous divorce requirements.
(Incidentally, so-called TRAP laws seek to subvert and slowly erode abortion rights by adding so many new requirements to care providers that they can’t operate at all, rather than seeking to abolish legalized abortion outright.)
However, the notion of covenant marriage only caught on in the most culture-warrior-dominated parts of the country, like Arkansas, Arizona, and Louisiana.
Even so, most couples–even couples belonging to that tribe–do not structure their marriages with this more onerous form of it. Out of almost 38k marriages in Arkansas in 2002, only 67 couples signed up for covenant marriages–and 24 of those were only converting their existing regular marriages to covenant ones. In 2003, the next year, Arkansas licensed only four new covenant marriages and five conversions. A lot more go for the idea in Louisiana, about 1% total perhaps, but still, it’s not a lot compared to how many evangelical culture-warriors live in those states.
Later, a very biased-sounding writer for the Louisiana Law Review could only summarize Louisiana’s then-seven years of covenant marriage by calling it “an unfulfilled promise.”
And as I expected, horror stories soon emerged from the women caught in these kinds of marriages.
(Sorta like the horror stories around women needing abortion care, eh wot?)
The More Serious Backlash Against No-Fault Divorce.
Evangelical culture warriors have slowly polarized in position against no-fault divorce. To hear them talk about it, this is the #1 enemy of everything they hold dear in the world.
And for what it’s worth, I completely believe them.
One Baptist pastor in Louisiana sent a form email to “every Louisiana legislator, and some statewide leaders.” He demanded an end to no-fault divorce, which he saw as “illegal.” He opened his letter by whining:
While you are at work your wife could file for divorce, get a Protective Order based on her word that she is afraid of you, and you couldn’t get into your own house. . .
OH NOES!!! THE HORROR!!!
But he notes, in bold no less, that he didn’t get a single reply to his fearmongering screed. Awww….
In 2009, a misogynistic twit for Crosswalk declared, “No-Fault Divorce is an Institutionalized Evil.” He compares the fight against no-fault divorce to the battles he mistakenly imagines his tribe fought against “slavery and child labor.” He mistakenly credits Hugh Hefner, rather than NAWL, for the law he hates. Then he pretends that really, he just cares about the “women and children” he sees as suffering so much under no-fault divorce laws. He offers no word regarding the ones suffering without the ability to escape bad marriages.
And Here’s Al Mohler, Ugh.
Al Mohler, one of the biggest names in the Southern Baptist Convention, also wrings his widdle handsies over no-fault divorce. He wrote a paper somewhere around 2003 titled, “No-Fault Divorce–The End of Marriage?” ZOMG OH NOES!!!
In it, Mohler thinks no-fault divorce has made marriage “hang by a thread.” He wants it dead.
Then he compliments Bill Cosby (yes!) for his “comment on family morality,” lauds the states then passing “amendments to protect the definition of marriage,” and hopes the 2004 election will fix everything.
(Narrator: “It really, really didn’t.”)
Kinda weird how later Mohler would have to do a lot of backpedaling over his denomination’s sex-abuse scandals, eh?
All these nutbars fully share that blithering, foam-flecked, full-throated HATRED for no-fault divorce. I’ve seen plenty of Christian men furiously rant about their hatred of women’s rights right up to and including the right to vote. But most of their vitriol goes to no-fault divorce.
As their tribe continues to decline in cultural relevance and societal power, their hatred for no-fault divorce has only increased to the point of scariness.
The Simple Truth.
At its heart, complementarianism is about authoritarian control-lust.
When authoritarian people gain power over others, they use it to its very fullest extent possible. If such people can completely and utterly control and dominate someone, then they will, and they do.
So yes. Complementarian men should hate no-fault divorce. In every single conceivable way, it spells a big part of the end of their last bastion of power: that uncontested, unchallenged power they wield in their family homes. It is a barrier to total control that they can’t breach, argue with, or deny.
They’ve lost that kind of power pretty much everywhere. Oh, they still dominate to an uncomfortable degree. But they don’t completely dominate anymore. And that’s The Big Problem Here to them. The only place they still completely dominate anybody is in their homes.
And they will be damned if they allow that last bit of power to be wrested away from them. “Jesus” totally wants them to have it, you see, so ya know, we’re kinda stuck here. /s
What they really hate about no-fault divorce might be the re-balancing it creates in their intentionally warped, dysfunctional, and imbalanced relationships.
As Justin Wolfers, a Stanford professor, tells us,
Under no-fault [divorce] wives can always threaten to walk out without the husband’s permission, changing the power balance in the relationship.
When the husband in the marriage realizes that his wife has power of her own that he can’t defeat, he pulls back–in effect behaving himself better.
Wolfers compares this effect to what happens in labor markets that enact right-to-strike legislation for workers, which gives them greater bargaining power against potentially-abusive employers.
And that’s definitely how complementarian men roughly see the situation. They know what stands at stake for them. They hugely resent “their” women’s ability to defy their demands, ever, anywhere, for any reason. (More on this next time.)
The Bottom Line.
Generally speaking, whenever Christians lose some bit of power they used to hold, the loss occurs because they misused it. They never willingly stop using their power to its fullest extent. Ever. We cannot reason with people like that, cannot placate them, nor bargain with them. They must be made to stop using it.
Thus, literally the only way to stop a Christian-dominated society from abusing women who needed to escape bad marriages was to entirely remove the ability for husbands to abuse their wives through the existing divorce system.
Decades later, Christian men still bellow and roar and beat their chests bloody with their desire to regain that power. But they cannot, and never will be able to, demonstrate how they’ll stop those abuses from happening again. Jesus-ing harder sure hasn’t worked up till now with anything else they’ve done. And the leaders in the religion flat-out refuse to set up any meaningful boundaries for their fellow power-lusting men.
If Christian-dominated American society had not turned divorce into a hellscape for women, an at-fault divorce system likely would have remained in place indefinitely. Remember this, next time Christians whine about their lost power.
They lost it because they deserved to lose it, not because everyone was totally mean to them.
And hopefully we’ve fully learned the lessons they’re teaching us in time to stop them from their final flailing outbursts on their way to irrelevance.
NEXT UP: The entitlement-mentality bred by complementarianism. Yes, I mean that silly dating-show brouhaha! See you next time!
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