Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Can No-Fault Divorce Actually Help Marriages?

On August 15, 2010 Governor Patterson signed the no-fault divorce bill making New York the 50th and final state to adopt no-fault divorce. What that means is that on October 15, 2010 a spouse who wants to be divorced will no longer be required to make allegations and prove marital fault by the other spouse.

For divorce actions commenced on or after that date, a person will only be required to swear that the relationship between them and their partner has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months. The divorce will only be granted once all the economic issues are resolved and there has been “equitable distribution.”

  • Will this mean a rash of impulsive divorces? Perhaps
  • Will it facilitate divorce in some untenable relationships for those with less financial resources? Possibly.
  • Will it actually help some marriages?  Maybe.

The Impact of  “ No-Fault” Divorce on Marriages

In my work with individuals who have been divorced or with couples trying to avoid it, a central dynamic of their stress and anguish is often an inability to see their own part in the marital strife, and a persistent need to blame the other. Such thinking leaves no room for change or movement because the focus is on blaming, leaving or replacing the other.

It is worth considering from a psychological perspective if the “No-Fault” divorce law, by lifting the need for blame, might invite consideration of shared ownership for problems.  As such, might it change the view of self and partner and the need to end the marriage?

Let’s consider these couple issues and dynamics in the light of “No-Fault.”

Choice: Because no-fault divorce reduces the expensive and contentious litigation that was associated with proving cruelty, adultery or abandonment as grounds for divorce, the choice to divorce becomes more possible. With choice comes possibility and empowerment. When you know you can leave – are you sure you want to? Do you reconsider what is good as well as what is stressful? Instead of living with resentment, are you prepared to take responsibility for action?

Some partners, after working on their own issues and enhancing their self-esteem, choose “to stay in a different way.”

The dynamics of a couple must change even if one stays by choice rather than need or lack of options.

Balance of Power: Some marriages are frozen in a skewed balance of power where the resources or emotional power of one makes the other unable to consider divorce. The possibility of choice now confronts denial. “He could actually leave.” “She is going to leave whether I want it or not.”

In one marriage of 40 years, the wife’s announced plan after visiting a friend that she was not returning home and planning on filing for a divorce dramatically confronted her husband with the consequences of his years of denigration and financial control. Only after he began some months of individual therapy and asked her to try again would she consider dating him and thinking about a new marriage to him.

Justification: Even with No-Fault, divorces never happen in a day. In some cases it will have to do with marital distribution, in others with ages of children, finances, or an emotional inability to act in any way. That said, living together with the plan to divorce is not an easy one for any partners.

  • When justification for divorce was based on proving “fault” it was corrosive to the atmosphere and identities of both parties. It forced selective attention to behavior that justified blame and made for one-dimensional perspectives- victim,bully, adulterer, betrayed partner, abandoner, abandoned. Whether accusations are true or false, life deteriorates to marking time and memories became lists of grievances.
  • With  “ No-Fault,” while partners may still have some time together while planning to divorce, it is likely to be less drawn out and to allow for possibility. If you jointly accept blame or ownership for an unworkable relationship, you invite self-reflection and consideration of the other as complex – as having good and bad traits. Notwithstanding those cases where reconciling is out of the question, for some couples the psychological distance afforded by mutually agreeing to the divorce– invites a willing examination of who they were when they met and married and what unfolded. For some it dares to invite work on re-connection on different terms. If you don’t have to blame the other for all that was wrong, you might be able to start to notice all that was right.

Re-writing History: “We never loved each other.” “I married you for convenience.”  One hopes that part of the benefit of “No-Fault” divorce will be the elimination of the collateral damage of trashing history and memories to fit the negative feelings and blame formerly needed as cause for divorce.

When couples dare to consider one more try before ending their marriage – it is often a glimpse of who they once were and the very real feelings they once had that gives them hope. At the very least even if they divorce, it is without self-recrimination or grief for lost or thrown away years.

The Children- Any divorce is a loss to the children of that marriage.  That said, the parents’ shared ownership of difficulties in a relationship as a reason for a divorce is easier for children than a divorce that necessitates the vilification, denigration, or abandonment of either of their parents. Because children consciously and unconsciously identify with both parents – the blame and pain of either is blame and pain they share.

It goes without saying that their needs, feelings and sense of safety are priorities. It is easier to adjust to Mom’s House-Dad’s House when children can still feel proud of the people living in those houses.

Sometimes the best second marriages are to the original partners!