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History of Divorce

Around The World

By Molly Kalafut

Just as marriage creates a family relationship, divorce ends that marriage. Most of the Western Hemisphere and some countries in the Eastern Hemisphere allow divorce under certain circumstances. The legal issues surrounding eligibility for divorce are often very complicated and include everything from alimony and child support to whether the divorced wife must return to her maiden name. Remarriage is is a surprisingly sticky issue, and throughout history many regions regulated if or when a divorced husband or wife could remarry.


Divorce regulation was first introduced by the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylonia.


In 1978 the country of Brazil made divorce legal.


In the 1960s Canada legalized divorce. Previously the only option was to get a marriage dissolved by an Act of Parliament with an investigation by a special committee of the Canadian Senate.

In July 2004, a lesbian couple in Ontario, Canada became the first same-sex couple in Canada to seek a divorce...complicated by divorce laws that define spouses as "either of a man or a woman who are married to each other." The couple had been together for nearly 10 years, married on June 18, 2003 about a week after it was legalized and then separated only 5 days later. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled the Divorce Act unconstitutional on September 13, 2004 and ordered same-sex marriages added.


In March 2004 the Congress of Chile approved legislation to legalize divorce after 9 years of debate and a 120 year divorce ban. The legalized divorce was signed into law during May 2004 by President Ricardo Lagos of Chile. The first divorces took place on November 18 2004 when the law first went into effect. Couples that want to divorce are required to undergo 2 months of counseling and separation of 1 year if both parties agree, or 3 years separation if the couples don't agree. The separation period can be waived by a judge for "violations of marital duties" that include violence, drugs, criminal acts, prostitution or homosexuality. Despite the Catholic Church's heated opposition to the law, Lagos was quoted as saying "We cannot impose the positions of one sector of our society on all Chileans". Until the legalization, couples had to find creative ways to secure annulments - such as saying a false address had been given when they married. Despite the excessive cost (3+ months salary) involved in the nearly-sham annulments, more than 6,000 couples sought it each year. The new legal divorces cost less by about half.


In 1980 China legalized the no-fault divorce. Even if the divorce is wanted by both parties, it requires a mediation process by local committees beforehand to prove the marriage is irreparably damaged. Committees may be reluctant to approve the divorce if the wife can't find separate housing, which is complicated and difficult because housing is scarce and apartments are allocated by the husband's "work unit". Since the apartment and property are awarded to the spouse that stays in the residence, the husband usually receives all the property from a divorce.


In 1792 divorce was legalized in France then later made illegal in 1816.

German States

In the Personal Status Act 1875 German states allowed divorce if the couple was previously entitled to a religious "perpetual separation order".


On February 27, 1997 the country of Ireland joined the rest of Europe in making divorce legal when it passed an amendment ending the country's constitutional divorce ban.


Rome in classical times before Christianization had an informal, private divorce process. Divorces could be carried out mutually by the partners. Husbands could unilaterally decide on divorce for little or no reason, announced by a letter "repudium". In 449 the emperors Theodosius and Valentinian of Rome changed the divorce law to allow penalty-free divorces to men and woman if their spouse committed certain acts (homicide, poisoning, robbery, etc). In addition, husbands were specifically allowed to divorce their wife, keep the dowry and remarry later if he could prove that she was: "(I) going to dine with men other than her relations without the knowledge or against the wish of her husband; (2) going from home at night against his wish without reasonable cause; (3) frequenting the circus, theatre or amphitheatre after being forbidden by her husband."

It was only in the 700s that the Catholic Church announced that marriage was indissoluble by divorce or death. Annulments and dissolutions of marriage were conducted in a limited way until the 1100s when marriages were enforced strictly and even adultery could only result in separation, not divorce. Annulments were possible if the parties could prove they were too closely related by blood, and since noble houses were often closely related it could be conveniently exercised as a way to divorce. An online article about family law gives a fascinating excerpt from a knight's letter in the 1100s commenting on his wife-to-be: "Without any doubt she is related to me within the third degree. That is not close enough to stay away from her. But if I want, and if she does not suit me, I can, on the basis of this relationship, obtain a divorce."

In 1974 the government of Italy legalized divorce.


As of mid-2005, Malta and the Philippines remain two of the very few nations left that do not allow legal divorce.

In March 2005, a congresswoman in the Philippines published a bill to legalize divorce. A previous attempt had been made between 2001-2004 but died in Congress without a vote. The measure faces opposition from the Catholic Church. Divorce had been legalized for a time during the Japanese occupation of the Filipino-Japanese but it was illegal again afterwards. One of the only ways to void a marriage is to use "creative" measures, such as declare one of the spouses psychologically incapacitated...and under Article 36 of the Family Code, the psychological incapacitation can take place after the marriage.


After the 1910 Revolution in Portugal, laws were passed to liberalize family law. Divorce was legalized on November 3, 1910. Later those family laws were overturned during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar around 1940.


In 1794 the Code of Prussia legalized divorce for many broad reasons related to crime, bad conduct, adultery, serious incompatibility, refusal or incapacity for "duties of marriage", health reasons or change of religion. Additionally, if the marriage had no children a divorce could be agreed upon mutually by the spouses and both could remarry after the divorce.


Between 1909 and 1929 in candinavia, many family laws were reformed; including divorce and the status of illegitimate children.


In the 1560s Scotland first recognized divorces for adultery. By 1573 desertion was also grounds for divorce.

The Divorce Act of 1938 in Scotland recognized divorces for adultery, desertion, cruelty, sodomy, beastiality and "no-fault" divorce for incurable insanity.

The 1976 Divorce Act for Scotland provided for no-fault divorces for irretrievable breakdown for causes of adultery, desertion, unreasonable behavior, 2 years separation and consent of both spouses, or 5 years separation. Reportedly the "unreasonable behavior" reasons could be very broad.

Soviet Union

In the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, the Soviet Union went through a period of very informal divorces that could be obtained just by one spouse announcing the divorce. Moscow reported 5,000 divorce petitions in the first few months after the change. The rules for marriage and divorce were relaxed even further after 1926, when the divorced spouse was sometimes notified by letter (or postcard). Mass confusion reportedly ensued over who was married or divorced - and may not have been helped by the slow and inefficient postal service. During Stalin's regime, the informal family law was dramatically revoked. Divorce became difficult and expensive to obtain until the divorce law was again liberalized after 1968 following Stalin's death.


In 1981 the government of Spain legalized divorce.

United States

In 1701 the state of Maryland in the United States declared divorce legal.

In 1949-50, South Carolina declared divorce legal.

In 1970 the state of Alabama in the United States legalized the no-fault divorce.

Historical Divorce Resources

Process of Modernisation of Family Law

Comparative Criminology Portugal

History to day: February

Chile Legalizes Divorce

Chile's First Divorce Law In Effect

Canadian Women Seek Nation's First Same-Sex Divorce

About Malta: One Rainbow Two Visions

Bad Thinking: Catholic Church

International Divorce in Philippines

Italian History 1950

Louis de Bonald

Global Frontlines: China

Decades History Search

News Clips - APA

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Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and beyond! By Molly Kalafut