Marriage is about commitment, love, sharing, and compromise. It is a private, personal choice that should not be denied to anyone.
The same can be said about divorce.
That’s why no-fault divorce – meaning that the filing spouse is not required to show wrongdoing by the other spouse as the reason for dissolution of the marriage – is so important.
No-fault divorce first began in 1969, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California signed the first law of its kind in the United States. Today, every state and the District of Columbia offers no-fault divorce. In South Dakota, 97.6% of couples ending their marriage cite irreconcilable differences — South Dakota’s no-fault option — as grounds for divorce.
But despite its widespread use, there is a growing movement to eliminate no-fault divorce. We’ve seen recent proposals by conservative-dominated state legislatures to overturn no-fault divorce in Texas, Nebraska, and Louisiana. In South Dakota, Rep. Tony Randolph has introduced a bill each year since 2020 to remove irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce.
The motivation behind this push is fueled by a desire to rewrite society to fit within conservative faith-based family values; where one man and one woman marry, have children, and remain married until death. While this is a lifepath that many people choose, it’s also a vision that leaves little room for the complexities we face in our ever-changing world and the various ways these complexities impact our lives. This simply isn’t the way things shake out for everyone.
There are several reasons to support no-fault divorce laws, but perhaps most critically is the case for marriages experiencing domestic violence.
Requiring victims of domestic violence to prove fault in court to grant a divorce can be a lengthy and arduous process. It may expose them to further harm, intimidation, and retaliation from their abusive partners, who may try to discredit or intimidate them during legal proceedings. Eliminating no-fault divorce may discourage victims from seeking divorce altogether. The fear of legal battles and the potential for further abuse may make victims more likely to stay in dangerous situations, putting their physical and emotional well-being at risk. Because of this, victims may be less likely to report instances of domestic violence if they believe they will be forced to prove fault to obtain a divorce. If victims know that reporting abuse may trigger a lengthy and contentious divorce process, they may be less likely to come forward or seek help, perpetuating cycles of abuse.
Proving fault in divorce proceedings can take a considerable amount of time and resources. This delay can prevent divorcing parties from accessing financial support, child custody arrangements, and other legal protections they need in a timely manner. Prolonged divorce proceedings can also have a detrimental effect on children in abusive households. Contentious and drawn-out legal battles can negatively impact children's mental and emotional well-being through an already stressful and challenging time.
In a National Bureau of Economic Research study conducted in 2003, (NBER Working Paper No. 10175), researchers discovered a large decline in the number of women committing suicide following the introduction of no-fault divorce, but no similar decline for men. States that passed no-fault divorce laws saw total female suicide decline by around 20% in the long run. The research also found a large decline in domestic violence for both men and women following adoption of no-fault divorce. Finally, the evidence suggests that no-fault divorce led to a decline in women murdered by their partners, while the data reveal no discernible effects for homicide against men.
Extreme ideology about what American family life should look like becomes dangerous when it morphs into public policy. Covenant marriages and at-fault only divorces can trap partners and their children in dangerous marriages. Every situation is unique. South Dakotans’ options for ending their marriage should not be limited by a narrow vision of family life that doesn’t take life’s complexities into account.
We can prevent the spread of policies based on extreme ideologies with vocal opposition during the legislative session, before these proposed bills become law. Just like entering into marriage, everyone should have complete agency to leave a marriage for any reason, without government interference. You are the author of your life story, not politicians.
If you’re experiencing domestic violence and are seeking support near you, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
- SMS: Text START to 88788
- Hours: 24/7. Languages: English, Spanish and 200+ through interpretation service