The Long Good-bye

In which it is argued that a look at the history of divorce may make you feel better about our own scandalous ways

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"Conservative moralists," Barbara Holland writes, "believe that the U.S. divorce rate, holding steady at around 50 percent, means the end of the world as we know it--or knew it." In her brisk and acerbic history of divorce, Holland takes exception to this idea. "Poke around in the past," she says, "and it turns out that divorce in one form or another is roughly the same age as marriage."

The story of the untangling of the marital ties takes us across cultures and times, back to the Code of Hammurabi and Mosaic law and up through the Middle Ages to the present. Before Moses, Holland reports, a man had only to gather together a couple of friends as witnesses and tell his wife she was no longer his wife. She packed up what she could easily carry, which may be why women came to favor jewelry, and left.

Married women had some rights in the Roman Empire, and by the time of Augustus, they could actually divorce a husband if he was a convicted criminal or a prisoner of war, or had vacated the villa. But among the barbarians to whom Rome fell, wives were married off by their families, who either exacted a bride-price or provided a dowry, depending on whether or not women were in demand. Even when the church decided that marriage was a religious as well as a civil affair, holding that "marriage is forever"--except, of course, for annulments--there was trouble in paradise, most of it legal.

Times have changed. And in an era of prenuptial agreements, corporate wife compensation and inexpensive, easily obtainable, no-fault divorce, Holland believes that the fact that 50 percent of couples still stay together is notable. "Contrary to popular perception," she concludes, "we may be living in an era of marital fidelity unseen since the dawn of time.... Perhaps the divorce rate measures a sentimental hopefulness, a wistful pursuit of legalized happy-ever-after that somehow, against all odds, we continue to believe in. Unrealistic, maybe, but rather sweet."

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