The Right’s War on Divorce—and Its Costs

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Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.She didn’t want to be married anymore, and he didn’t like that.
In April, right-wing activist and influencer Steven Crowder told the audience of his podcast, Louder with Crowder, that he and his wife, Hilary, were getting divorced. He claimed he was blindsided. She just “didn’t want to be married anymore,” he complained, “and in the state of Texas, that is completely permitted.” In today’s legal system, he went on, “my beliefs don’t matter.”
Crowder’s lamentation refers to what is called no-fault divorce. Under Texas’ current laws, one party can unilaterally file to end a marriage. The other party has a chance to respond, but no one has to prove that something—or someone—caused the divorce. “Fault” can still be used to bolster legal claims of abuse, like when resolving custody fights, but it is not required.
The push for no-fault divorce began in California in the 1960s ostensibly to alter a system that required public discussion of wronged parties, infidelity, and other private matters for a legal separation. Couples fought bitterly in public; some fabricated fights to get divorce papers. No-fault divorce helped simplify the process. “Now all they have to say is: We tried but the marriage failed, so let’s give it a decent burial,” explained a lawyer of the new provisions. In 1969, Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating the first such divorce law. In the following decades, states across the country altered their rules—it was a cascade of reform that changed what it meant to seek legal separation. 
But it would go on to become a bitter subject. Reagan would later say, according to his son, his “greatest regret” was signing the law. These laws now face a renewed vocal backlash from those on the right. Marriage is losing its potency, conservative commentators say, and is no longer seen as the iron-clad social structure it used to be. There goes the good wife, the nuclear family, and ‘til death do us part.  
“No-fault divorce turned marriage from a covenant into a contract,” William Wolfe, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration and a self-described theological and political commentator, said in a since-deleted post. In a list about how to better protect women, Daily Wire and PragerU host Michael Knowles suggested ending no-fault divorce. On a podcast episode, Tim Pool and his guests had a snowballing conversation rejecting the unilateral law; he said it is “ruining relationships.”
This national attention might make ending no-fault divorce seem like an old Republican position turned sensationalist talking point of the online right, flattened to men on the internet complaining about their wives, or lack thereof. But the reality is that dismantling the ability to easily divorce a partner is a moral bastion of the Republican platform in states across the country. Just as abortion access seemed “settled law”—and discussions of ending Roe were seen by some as a pipe dream discussed to fire up the base—the potential death of no-fault divorce sounds antiquated and is decidedly real.
In Texas, where Crowder lives, the official Republican party platform calls for ending no-fault divorce. The official Republican party platform in Nebraska also opposes no-fault divorce as it exists today; in Louisiana, the GOP is debating whether to recommend the elimination of no-fault divorce; and in Mississippi, an attempt to strengthen the current no-fault divorce guidelines failed.
Ending no-fault divorce is akin to “many Republican culture war positions,” Joanna L. Grossman, a professor at the Dedman School of Law in Dallas, told me. The ideas are “ahistorical” and “relatively uninformed,” and—as it did with the Dobbs decision—it seems impossible to imagine them succeeding. Still, when I asked Grossman if she thinks Republicans in her state and across the country would really do it, she was of two minds. Maybe not, but she also thought Roe was untouchable.
“From everything happening in the abortion context,” she said, it’s clear “we’re at a pretty unique moment in history, where crazy is the mode.”
This might all seem like abstract culture war leading to more paperwork for couples. But, despite its origins, no-fault divorce has become key for women in other ways. 
Days after Steven Crowder complained about how easy it was for his wife to divorce him, a video from 2021 surfaced that cast doubt on his framing of their marriage. It shows Crowder and a then-pregnant Hilary talking in their backyard, as he berates her for not being a worthy woman, and not practicing “discipline and respect.” In the video, she pleads with him, saying, “I love you, but Steven, your abuse is sick.”
“Watch it. Fucking watch it,” he responds.
In a statement at the time, Hilary’s family said, “The truth is that Hilary spent years hiding Steven’s mentally and emotionally abusive behavior from her friends and family while she attempted to save their marriage.”
Crowder and crew’s assertion that people get divorced for the fun of it is off. In practice, getting a divorce continues to be complicated—a hodge-podge of law, lies, and the challenges that come with leaving someone who has committed wrongdoing. And that means the decision to end no-fault would, experts say, make things harder—particularly for victims of abuse.
It was January 2020. That morning, Eleanor, who preferred to not use her real name for fear of retaliation, recalls her then-husband following her around as she did her routine: prepping food, cleaning up, getting her family’s world ready before their children woke up. He had stopped taking his prescribed medications for bipolar symptoms, ADHD, and depression, and was acting increasingly violent. “Because we were married, or whatever, married people have sex, he wanted to have sex,” she said, “that ended up being a sexual assault.”
As she struggled, he pinned her down and strangled her, yelling “I will fucking kill you.” Eleanor struck him and stood up. He opened his hand, hit her three times, and knocked her unconscious. When she woke up, her husband was walking over her body as he continued getting ready for the day.
“This is when I realized, ‘Oh my God, the person that I married, he didn’t just snap, he didn’t have a moment—this is who he is.’”
When law enforcement arrived at Eleanor’s house in Texas, they did not believe her. The husband had been the one to call the cops. He was charming. Eleanor remembers them asking when she pushed for his arrest: Are you sure you want to do this?
When Eleanor went to get a protective order against her then-husband, they also didn’t believe her. She recalls them telling her that she didn’t look bruised or battered. Eleanor tried to explain that her abuser had used his open hand, that he had been strategic. “If you’re not close enough to death, if you’re not bloody and blue,” Eleanor told me, “then ‘Oh, well!’”
In 2020, she hopped from shelter to friend’s house to hotel to shelter, all while trying to get a divorce and have custody. It took a year for the divorce to be finalized.
I asked Eleanor about what her situation would have been like if getting a divorce in Texas were made more complicated—if she would have had to prove what happened to her that day in order to leave. “The notion that this could even be made any more difficult than it already is—I don’t even know how it could,” she told me.
And yet the end of no-fault divorce would have put even more obstacles in front of Eleanor. She would have likely had a longer, more expensive time in court. His power would have increased if she needed more proof of abuse to end the marriage, retrieve assets, and figure out custody. For some, these hurdles will be too steep—the process will be rendered too confusing, too complicated, and too threatening.
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.
When I asked Matt Rinaldi, the Republican Party of Texas Chairman about the negative effects of ending no-fault divorce, he said in an email “the Texas GOP would oppose any changes in law that would negatively impact domestic violence victims and support safeguards in any family law changes to ensure that domestic violence can swiftly and easily escape abusive relationships.” The party does not have a current piece of legislation they are pushing, but in 2017, for example, a state representative tried to pass a law that would end to no-fault divorce. The state GOP now calls for a law “to support covenant marriage” and for “extending the period of time in which a divorce may occur to six months after the date of filing for divorce.”
For Eleanor, she says that making the process longer would have exacerbated her dangerous circumstances and worsened her children’s experience. “We have to stop applauding people for how many years of service you have in a marriage,” she told me.
Yet, this idea of the loyal, ever-persevering woman remains. In a recent episode, Crowder “came clean” on his ongoing divorce proceedings. He warns his audience to not draw conclusions on what would “necessarily be incomplete information.” And then took the time to thank the “Conservative, God-fearing” women he has been courting, who have helped him “through what has been the darkest, most difficult period” of his life. He also made sure to apologize to the men going through similar situations, for anything he may have said that was hurtful.