NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 17, 2004

Over the past 40 years, legislatures increased access to divorce, making it possible for a married person to seek a divorce without the consent of their spouse. According to a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), this has reduced family violence considerably.

Earlier divorce laws typically required the consent of both parties or a demonstration of marital fault. The new divorce laws (called unilateral divorce) did not. The authors find that liberalized divorce seriously benefited family wellness:

  • States that passed unilateral divorce laws saw total female suicide decline by around 20 percent in the long run.
  • They also found a large decline in domestic violence for both men and women following adoption of unilateral divorce.
  • Additionally, evidence suggest that unilateral divorce led to a decline in females murdered by their partners.

The paper argues that the decline in domestic violence is due to the bargaining power of the dissatisfied spouse. Now that a spouse can terminate the marriage and remarry with few legal difficulties, the other partner must make it worth their while to stay committed, says NBER.

Source: Les Picker, "Divorce Laws and Family Violence," National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Digest, March 2003l; based upon Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, "Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress," National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper No. 10175, December 2003.

For NBER Digest article

For working paper abstract


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