Very few people would list divorce among their top ten favorite events in life. Even if your divorce was relatively conflict free, you probably wouldn’t compare it to a vacation in the Caribbean. You should be glad though that your divorce was handled under 21st century laws. Divorce was much more difficult in the past.
For many Europeans, divorce was not even possible under the law for centuries. Ireland only legalized divorce in 1995 and Malta still has no divorce law. Here are three ways divorce was very difficult in the 19th century.
You Needed Your In-law’s Permission
The Napoleonic Code instituted by France in 1804 is one of the foundations for modern civil law around the world. Many of its statutes were revolutionary and established equality under the law for all. It was one of the few early legal codes to recognize that marital property was equally owned by both the husband and wife and should be divided in a divorce.
While progressive, the Napoleonic Code still required justification for divorce. Adultery, cruelty, or criminal conviction had to be proved before a couple could divorce. There was however, one other option. If you and your spouse as well as both of your parents agreed, a divorce could be granted. Imagine having to ask your soon-to-be ex-in-laws if you can divorce their daughter. Somehow no matter how beautiful French sounds, that conversation isn’t going to end well.
Attempted Murder Wasn’t Enough
European law struggled for a long time to define under what circumstances a divorce should be allowed. It was believed that one party had to be at fault and some wrong must have been committed to justify the divorce. Adultery was the most common claim for divorce, but even then it often had to be excessive and proven by witnesses. Other grounds such as cruelty or desertion were also often allowed, but were difficult to prove.
In 1816, the Netherlands attempted to pass a law that divorce could be granted if one of the spouses attempted to murder the other spouse or any of the spouse’s relatives. The law was defeated in landslide. Apparently, Dutch lawmakers felt that failing to murder your spouse wasn’t reason enough to end a marriage.
It Required an Act of Parliament
Prior to 1857, a divorce was so difficult to obtain in Great Britain that it required an act of parliament. Seriously, you had to petition the British Parliament for a “Private Act of Parliament” granting you a divorce. This procedure was extremely expensive and so only available to the wealthy. Suitable grounds such as adultery or cruelty still had to be proven.
The act was also only private in the sense that you paid for it, meaning that it was still debated in public. Members of Parliament got up for and against your divorce and debated the sordid details of infidelity or violence that justified the divorce. Just consider for a moment if divorce was still handled this way in the age of social media.
Modern divorce may at first seem complicated when you think about the paperwork, visitation, and child support agreements involved. Compared to the divorce proceedings of the past, it is a cake walk. Take a moment to consider all the advancements 200 years of divorce law has brought us.