Divorce Made (Too) Easy

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Commentary for CBS News Sunday Morning by novelist and biographer Susan Cheever.
It's easy to get married in the United States. All it takes is a license and a trip to the marriage bureau.

But it's even easier to get divorced; a few visits to a lawyer, and your friends are congratulating you on a new life.

Divorce court has become as much a part of the American scene as health food stores, or baseball diamonds, or college campuses. As a country, we have the highest divorce rate in the world.

Marriage laws are the oldest laws in existence. The first were carved in stone in the marketplaces of Babylon by King Hammurabi thousands of years ago.

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Each society makes marriage laws that favor its needs. In a society that needs soldiers, the marriage laws favor the production of male children. In a society based on property, the marriage laws are engineered to protect property. In a society where women are regarded as possessions, the marriage laws reflect that.

Our laws for marriage and divorce, which we adopted from the British laws, clearly do not work any more. Our laws have collided with our culture.

This wonderful country of ours is all about a new start. The pilgrims came to Massachusetts looking for a new start. The founding fathers fought a bloody war to earn a new start. The Frontier was a thousand new starts.

We love stories about starting over, about redemption, about our realizing our mistakes and beginning a new life.

We understand perfectly when a friend says her marriage ended because she and her husband grew apart. But we give little credit to people who stay married against the odds. This is bad for wives and good for divorce lawyers.

I have left three marriages myself, each time with the unconditional blessings of my friends. There was always a good reason to leave. Later, when I saw my children's hearts break, I was sorry. Not only sorry that I hadn't stayed married, but that I lived in a world where there seemed to be so few alternatives.

For many of us, divorce feels like a liberation instead of the tragedy that it is. Until we change our attitudes, marriage and divorce will stay right here in the same neighborhood.

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