The Heartbreaking History of Divorce

Amanda Foreman in Smithsonian:

AnnThe fact is, in the United States the probability of a first marriage lasting for 20 years has decreased to about 50-50. (Before anyone blames Western decadence for the breakdown of the family, it should be pointed out that the Maldives occupies the number one spot in the divorce league tables, followed by Belarus. The United States is third.) Furthermore, these grim statistics don’t even touch on the reality that for an increasing percentage of the population, life is a series of short cohabitations punctuated by the arrival of children. For a country that makes such a fuss about love on the 14th of February, America has a funny way of showing it on the other 364 days of the year. This may be my XX chromosomes doing the talking, but it seems to me that divorce is, and always has been, a women’s issue par excellence. Multiple studies have shown that women bear the brunt of the social and economic burdens that come with divorce. The quickest route to poverty is to become a single mother. This is awful enough, but what I find so galling is that the right to divorce was meant to be a cornerstone of liberty for women. For centuries, divorce in the West was a male tool of control—a legislative chastity belt designed to ensure that a wife had one master, while a husband could enjoy many mistresses. It is as though, having denied women their cake for so long, the makers have no wish to see them enjoy it.

…The most celebrated divorce case in history remains that of Henry VIII versus Pope Clement VII. The battle began in 1527, when Henry tried to force the pope into annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to provide him with a male heir. Determined to make the younger and prettier Anne Boleyn his wife, Henry finally broke with Rome in 1533 and declared himself the head of a new church, the Church of England. The collateral damage from Henry’s unilateral decision was a way of life that stretched back for more than a thousand years. Gone forever was not just a system of patronage or the ancient rites, but the vast network of religious schools, hospitals, convents and monasteries that maintained the social fabric of the country.

More here.