The Most Powerful Man in the House Doesn’t Like Divorce

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Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Newly minted Speaker of the House Mike Johnson thinks it’s too easy to get divorced, and he’d like to change that. 
“In my generation, all we’ve ever known is the no-fault scheme, and any deviation from that seems like a radical move,” Johnson said more than two decades ago. No-fault divorce, the “scheme” Johnson has long admonished, allows one party to unilaterally file to end a marriage—without having to prove things like adultery, imprisonment, or domestic abuse. These laws, mostly passed in the 1960s and 70s, were monumental in furthering women’s financial, social, and professional independence, as well as their safety. 
Johnson, though, believes that such laws are partly to blame for our “completely amoral society” that causes a young person to go “into their schoolhouse and open fire on their classmates.”
And Johnson isn’t alone in his ire. Lately there’s been a push by conservatives to end no-fault divorce—in podcast studios and in the halls of government. Right-wing activist and influencer Steven Crowder, Daily Wire and PragerU host Michael Knowles, and conservative podcaster Tim Pool, among others, have all decried the nationwide standard as being too lax, granting women divorces on a whim. The official GOP party platforms in Texas and Nebraska call for ending no-fault divorce. And in Louisiana, Johnson’s home state, the Republican party is considering the elimination of no-fault divorce.
Johnson’s opposition to no-fault divorce dates back decades. In 1997, Louisiana became the first state in the country to pass a “covenant marriage” law, offering newlyweds a religion-based contract that makes it significantly harder to get divorced. The law was backed by the Louisiana Family Forum, “a voice for traditional families,” where Johnson had been a volunteer. (The organization has received money from powerful groups like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom; Johnson has been an attorney and spokesperson for the latter.) Two years later, Johnson and his new wife, Kelly, opted for a covenant marriage. They were some of the few who did. Between 2000 and 2010, about 1 percent of Louisiana couples opted for a covenant marriage.
Yet other states followed suit: both Arizona and Arkansas passed similar laws. And if Republicans re-up their desire to end no-fault divorce, that could spell disaster for people in abusive marriages, in which time is of the essence. A couple of months ago, I wrote about the history of no-fault divorce and the life-threatening impacts any attempt to roll back the standard would cause. 
The most dangerous time for women experiencing abuse is when they attempt to escape, according to research. “Imagine finally leaving a person who’s emotionally and physically assaulted you, betrayed you, violated you,” Brooke Axtell, director of strategic partnerships at The SAFE Alliance, a Texas nonprofit helping abuse victims and survivors, said, “and then being forced to combat them in court sometimes for years, to prove this just so you can be free of them and claim what belongs to you.”
Abusers often isolate their victims, cutting off communication with other family members, friends, and support systems. A 2003 working paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that total female suicide declined by around 20 percent in states that allowed one partner to solely push for divorce.
“The extended proceedings of fault-based divorce can exacerbate depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation, which many victims and survivors already struggle with,” Axtell told me. The research also found that no-fault divorce laws led to a decline in women murdered by their partners, while the data showed no discernible difference in homicide against men.
With a keen ear now heading the chamber, anti-divorce Republicans may be able to enact their vision of marriage—one that returns to a picket-fence-clad reality which harms women and keeps them locked inside their own houses. 
Johnson hopes that, maybe, if more people heard about an alternative to no-fault divorce, they’d understand. Exposure is the problem, he said following his marriage in 1999. “It’s not unpopular—it’s just unknown.”