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History of Divorce

History of DivorceDivorce is meant to be a new lease on life, but few know its true origins.  In Western society, we often assume that Henry VIII was the first recorded divorce, but that is not true.   The origins of divorce go back much further than a fat guy elbowing the executioner in between bites from a turkey leg.

Greco-Roman Times

Not surprisingly, the Greeks and Romans are  the first ones to have documented accounts of divorce.  In Athenian society, divorce was readily available to anyone and everyone.  However, the request for a divorce had to be submitted to a magistrate, who decided whether or not the request fit with the divorce laws of the time.  Needless to say, this was probably the guy you wanted in your corner whenever the ouzo was flowing a bit too freely.

Rome had a much more lenient attitude towards divorce, legally speaking, because they knew the cultural, familial, and social stigmas of divorce prevented weak cases.  Then again, the Romans were known for some pretty lax behavior.  Since marriage was often used as a political tool in Rome, it was common for a man or woman to marry and divorce several times if they felt it was in their best interests.  This practice was called Manus Marriage, and ended in the first century BC.  It was then replaced by Free Marriage.  Under Free Marriage, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore,” was a perfectly valid excuse for divorce, and could be initiated by either the husband or wife.  Even hundreds of years after the conversion of the empire, various Christian emperors either restricted or relaxed these conditions as they saw fit.  It’s good to be the king.

Divorce in Medieval Times

Today, “My spouse’s snoring is an irreconcilable difference!” is more than enough reason to get your marriage dissolved, but the Medieval European divorce was a bit more elaborate than that.  In fact, civil divorce laws during the Middle Ages did not exist for the sole reason that the Catholic Church had the ultimate authority over the circumstances of divorce, separation, and annulment–the latter of which was determined by the ecclesiastical courts.  The primary idea behind the practice was that, since marriage was supposed to be a union of two people into one in the eyes of God, the only way in which those two could be separated was if there were circumstances which would prevent the union in the first place.

The Middle- East

Sunni Muslims practice what is known as the triple talaq, in which the husband says (in Arabic) “I divorce thee” three times.  That’s it.  That’s the whole process.  Sunni divorce is as simple as summoning Beetlejuice

Shiite Muslims have a far more elaborate divorce process.  For Shiite divorce, the divorce process is taken step-by-step, with each step of the talaq being performed.  These steps are the initiation, the reconciliation (if possible), and the completion.  For the initiation, most Shiites fulfill this by announcing in public they are getting a divorce.  Reconciliation is performed with family mediation during the course of a waiting period.  If that fails, then the divorce is completed and everyone goes their separate ways.

Contrary to popular belief, women are able to file for divorce with a qadi (a judge on matters of Islamic law), but must wait for a period of one menstrual cycle, or one month if the wife is post-menopause before proceeding.  Surprisingly, in the Middle East, divorce rates are actually far lower today than they were a few hundred years ago, but in Southeast Asian Islamic countries, the divorce rate can be as high as 70% in some villages.

The Far East

Meanwhile, Japan took a much different approach to divorce than all of the above.  Only husbands could divorce their wives, but some women were able to go into certain Shinto temples for a number of years, and through that, obtain a divorce that way.  Frankly, if your marriage is so poor and unbearable that you need to seek refuge in a temple for several years–and you think that is a solid trade-off–divorce is probably the right choice to make.  It’s estimated that, during the 19th century, one in eight Japanese marriages ended in divorce, but there’s no telling how many of these were initiated by women.

Although Henry VIII may have broken away from the Catholic Church so he would no longer have to lob off his wives’ heads, he was not the first person to think, “This marriage was a mistake.  I have to get out of this.”

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