What Is the Origin of Divorce?

By Robin Elizabeth Margolis

Approximately three out of every 1,000 Americans went through a divorce in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The legal procedure to end marriage, divorce, has existed throughout written human history and has its origin in the desire of unhappy couples to end marriages which have not met their personal needs.

Earliest Divorces

Hammurabi, the king-priest of Babylon between 1795 B.C. and 1750 B.C., ordered his country's code of laws, including divorce rules, carved on an eight-foot-high black stone monument. Hammurabi's Code is one of the earliest written law codes. A man could divorce his wife by saying, "You are not my wife," paying a fine and returning her dowry. A wife had to file a lawsuit to obtain a divorce. Babylonian couples sought divorces for reasons such as adultery, infertility, desertion, abusive treatment and neglect. A wife could divorce a husband for adultery. A husband could ask a court to execute his adulterous wife, according to Rev. Claude H.W. Johns' book, "Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters."

Roman Era Divorces

The Roman Empire conquered most of Europe and parts of the Middle East by 117 A.D., making Roman divorce law prevalent. The modern term "divorce" comes from the Latin term "divortere," a term meaning to turn different ways or separate. A Roman couple seeking divorce declared their desire to split up in front of seven witnesses. Because the divorce procedure was easy, divorce was common, particularly among the upper classes. Jewish divorce law in the Roman era rested upon Old Testament rules set forth in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and a code of law called the Talmud. Only the husband had the right to initiate a divorce. A Jewish husband could divorce his wife by giving her a certificate of divorce if she displeased him for any reason.

Divorce is never easy, but we can help. Learn More

Christian Divorces

After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., the medieval church discouraged divorce, following Christ's position in the New Testament as set forth in Mark 10:11-12. Many noblemen seeking divorce instead obtained annulments, declarations from church officials that their marriages had never been valid from the beginning due to technicalities such as being distant cousins. As late as the mid-19th century, the only English people who could afford divorces were noblemen who could ask Parliament for a private bill granting them a divorce. Commoners sometimes used a folk custom, selling one's wife at auction to another man, a procedure that became a primary plot device in Victorian writer Thomas Hardy's novel, "The Mayor of Casterbridge."

American Divorces

The English colonies that became the United States varied in their legal views of divorce. Massachusetts courts allowed divorce for claims of adultery, desertion, impotence and bigamy. The southern colonies prohibited divorce except in cases of adultery. After the United States became an independent country, differences among state divorce laws continued. Americans from states with restrictive laws turned to so-called "divorce mill" states, where they could obtain faster divorces. When the first "no-fault" divorce law took effect in California in 1970, allowing divorces by mutual consent, most states adopted similar laws within a decade, making American divorces much easier to obtain.

Divorce is never easy, but we can help. Learn More
What Constitutes Mental Cruelty in a Divorce?
 

References

Resources

Related articles

Sharia Law on Divorce

When immigrants arrive in the United States, they bring the traditions of their faith with them. Sharia and its laws guide devout Muslims. Based on the teachings of the Quran and Mohammed, this Islamic code defines acceptable behavior in almost every aspect of a Muslim’s life, and it extends to ways in which a couple may end their marriage.

Divorce Law on Irreconcilable Differences in New York State

Until New York made changes to its Domestic Relations Law in 2010, New York was the only state that continued to require proof of fault to get a divorce. New Yorkers who wanted to obtain a divorce without a legal separation had to prove that their spouses were guilty of adultery, abandonment, cruel and inhuman treatment, or imprisoned for three years or longer. The addition of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, which is the equivalent to irreconcilable differences in other states, gave New York a no-fault ground for divorce.

The Definition of Selective Incorporation

Selective incorporation is an important term in constitutional law, a part of the long debate over the powers of the federal government versus that of the individual states. In general, it refers to how the rights outlined in the Constitution apply to the states -- and the requirement that state laws and constitutions must observe these rights.

Get Divorced Online

Related articles

Basis for Annulment

Couples often mistakenly assume that an annulment is an easier, cheaper and quicker alternative to a divorce, but in ...

What is Meant by Selective Incorporation?

Selective incorporation is a constitutional doctrine that ensures states cannot enact laws that take away the ...

The Relationship of Elopement & Divorce

Elopement and divorce have a dark and complex historical relationship. Even today, when elopements are generally ...

How to Resolve an Unwanted Divorce

Your spouse wants a divorce. You want to save the marriage. There are legal ways to resolve an unwanted divorce, ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED