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Author: Solangel Maldonado

8

Is Divorce Too Easy? Helping Marriages Survive Infidelity

Last week I came across a New York Times article that has led me to question my position on the legal regulation of divorce.   I generally agree that once a person decides to end his or her marriage, there is little that lawmakers can do to help “save” it.   Most people know that divorce often wreaks havoc on the family’s financial security, is almost always painful for the children, and can have long term negative effects on children’s emotional health, academic achievement, and adult relationships.   Despite this knowledge, approximately one million children each year experience their parents’ divorce.   Although there are many reasons why couples divorce, adultery is often at the top of the list.  While some states require spouses seeking a no fault divorce to live apart for a statutory period (often 6 months), no state imposes a waiting period when the alleged ground is adultery.  Adultery is seen as a marital offense that no one should have to endure.  Indeed, until the late 1960s, adultery was the only ground for divorce in New York.  It turns out, however, that most marriages survive adultery.  In other words, although a betrayed spouse has the legal right to file for divorce immediately (at least in the two-thirds of states that still have fault based divorce), most do not.   Marriages often last for years after the infidelity is discovered.  

Many of us find it hard to believe that, in a time of websites with mottos such as “Life is short.  Have an affair“,  marriages might actually be stronger and more resilient today than they were 20 or 30 years ago.   The divorce rate has stabilized in recent years after rising dramatically in the 1970s and 80s.  In addition, the 10-year divorce rate for couples who married in the 1990s is significantly lower than that of couples who married in the 70s and 80s.   Admittedly, a lower divorce rate does not necessarily mean that spouses are happy, but marriage has traditionally served a greater good than promoting the happiness of its individual members.   The Supreme Court has described marriage as the “foundation . . . of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”   Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 364, 384 (1978).

Given society’s interest in marriage and all of the negative consequences of divorce, should law incentivize couples to repair the marriage after infidelity?  For example, the reason why some states require couples seeking a no fault divorce to live apart for a significant period of time is that lawmakers believed that this waiting period might actually lead to reconciliation.  The hope was that spouses who were living apart while waiting out the statutory period would come to the realization that they did not want to be apart and would reconcile.  I am not aware of any empirical evidence suggesting that this waiting period actually leads to long term reconciliation, but many couples do reconcile after separation.  Maybe they would not have done so had they been able to seek a divorce immediately.  

Studies have found that at least two-thirds of people who discovered a spouse’s  affair were still married and living with the cheating spouse years later.   These studies might suggest that the law need not provide an incentive for spouses to stay together after infidelity—the majority are already doing so even though they have legal ability to exit immediately.  Of course, there are many reasons why a betrayed spouse might stay (for the sake of the children or financial stability, for example) even if the law does not place any obstacles to exit.   But is it possible that some marriages that did not survive infidelity could have survived had the law made divorce more difficult?  Is it possible that a woman (whose first instinct upon discovering her husband’s affair is to kick him out) would give him a second chance if she knew that she was stuck with him anyway for at least another 6 months to a year.   As the New York Times article noted, although the wife of unfaithful South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford asked him to move out after she discovered his affair, she still believes that their marriage can be repaired.   What if the law could give them a push in that direction?  Although a waiting period alone might not change spouses’ willingness or desire to try and save their marriage after an affair, social norms might.  If the law were to require a cooling off period in cases of adultery, as it often does in no fault divorce cases, it would signal that adultery is forgivable—that society no longer considers it an offense that no one should be expected to endure.   As a result, individuals who do not give their cheating spouses a second (or third, or fourth) chance could be stigmatized as uncommitted or even selfish.  Therein lies the challenge when law tries to regulate intimate relationships.  How can lawmakers encourage stronger marriages (which are presumably good for society and children) while simultaneously respecting individuals’ rights to personal happiness and freedom?

11

Criminalizing Matchmaking: Mail Order Marriage Laws

During his recent appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, actor Alec Baldwin, who has been involved in a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife for years, offended many people when he said that he would love to have more children and was “thinking about getting a Filipino mail-order bride.”  Mr. Baldwin has since apologized for the insensitive comment and admitted that “such anger and frustration about the issue of sex trafficking is understandable.”   Admittedly, some mail order marriages are the result of sex trafficking, but does this mean that countries should criminalize the mail order marriage industry as the Philippines has done?

The Philippines has two statutes addressing mail order marriages.  Republic Act No. 6955, enacted in 1990, makes it a crime for any person to ”carry on a business which has its purpose the matching of Filipino women for marriage to foreign nationals either on a mail-order basis or through personal introduction.”  The penalty for violation of the Act is a minimum six years imprisonment.  In addition, if the offender is a foreigner, he will be deported (after serving his sentence) and permanently banned from Philippines.

In 2003, the Philippines enacted the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act,which, among other things, makes it illegal “To introduce or match for money, profit, or material, economic or other consideration . . . any Filipino woman to a foreign national, for marriage for the purpose of acquiring, buying, offering, selling or trading him/her to engage in prostitution, pornography, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery, involuntary servitude or debt bondage.”   The penalty for violation of the Anti-Trafficking Act is 20 years imprisonment and a minimum fine of one million pesos.

Despite these laws, the mail order bride industry continues to flourish.  Experts estimate that one-third to one-half of all foreign fiancees who enter the United States each year met their American husbands-to-be through an international marriage broker.  A large majority of the women come from Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, and the law has had little effect on international marriage brokers who do a lot of their advertising and matching online.  Although the United States also has laws regulating the mail order bride industry, some commentators argue that these marriages exacerbate gender, race, and class inequalities and thus, the United States should follow the Philippines’ approach.  Thoughts?

3

Forgiving the Ex, Part III

In my last post, I proposed that states require or recommend that angry, divorced parents participate in forgiveness interventions. While many people are probably skeptical of the law’s ability to cultivate forgiveness between divorced parents, lawmakers have already attempted to facilitate forgiveness in other contexts, for example, victim offender mediation (“VOM”) in criminal cases.

During a VOM, the victim has the opportunity to tell the offender how his crime has impacted his or her life. The offender is then given the opportunity to express his feelings and reasons he committed the criminal act. Many crime victims who participated in VOM have been able to forgive their offenders for acts ranging from petty thefts and vandalism to horrendous crimes such as rape and murder of a loved one.

Some of the factors that have made VOM successful as far as enabling crime victims to start healing might apply in the context of divorce. First, just like crime victims, divorcing spouses often feel that an injustice has been done to them. Second, similar to crime victims who have benefitted from telling their attackers how their crimes have negatively impacted their lives, divorcing spouses want their spouses to know just how deeply they have hurt them. Third, in VOM, the opportunity to listen to the attackers’ reasons for their behavior has helped victims forgive. Listening to a former spouse express his feelings and reasons for his hurtful behavior might similarly enable a hurt spouse to feel compassion and empathy, necessary elements of forgiveness.

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5

Forgiving the Ex, Part II

In a post last week, I discussed the negative effects of persistent anger against a former spouse, including the harm to their children. I suggested that maybe lawmakers need to encourage divorced parents to forgive each other. As I write this sentence, I realize how naïve and simplistic that sounds. How are lawmakers supposed to help people forgive a former spouse who abused, betrayed, or neglected them? Doesn’t encouraging people to forgive suggest that their anger is unwarranted? Doesn’t it suggest that the injurer’s actions were justified or that one is condoning or excusing her wrongful and unjust behavior? Well, no. Forgiveness does not mean that the forgiver does not have a right to be angry. To the contrary, the person who forgives chooses to “abandon [her] right to resentment . . . toward one who unjustly injured [her] while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward [the injurer].” Enright et al. (1999).

When asked if they have considered forgiving someone who has hurt them deeply, people often reply that the other person “doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” That may be so, but one does not forgive for the injurer’s benefit, but for one’s own benefit and possibly, for the benefits to one’s children. As I discussed in my earlier post, forgiveness may reduce anger and its negative effects on one’s physical and psychological health and parenting abilities. It might also reduce some of the destructive behaviors some parents engage in after divorce such as interfering with the other parent’s access to the children or disparaging him or her in front of the children. It might also enable some former spouses to cooperate as co-parents in their children’s upbringing. The question is not why divorced parents should forgive, but rather how can they be encouraged to do so?

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5

Forgiving the Ex

It seems that Americans are giving a lot of thought to forgiveness these days. We are asking ourselves whether we should forgive Eliot Spitzer, bailed-out bankers, and the Bush administration’s practice of torture. Oprah and the Mayo Clinic have sections on forgiveness and, a few weeks ago, Case Western Reserve Law School held a symposium on “Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and the Law” where the keynote speaker, Jens Meierhenrich, analyzed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. I want to focus on an area where I think forgiveness matters most—at home.

It is no surprise that some (possibly many) divorcing spouses feel angry and vengeful during and after the divorce. This anger may be healthy at first. It might motivate a battered spouse to leave her abusive partner or push a husband to leave an unfaithful wife who is unlikely to change her behavior. Anger is a sign of self-respect and belief in one’s self-worth. However, anger that endures for months, years, even decades, is not healthy. Studies have found a correlation between long-term anger and high blood pressure, poor cardiovascular health, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.

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8

Violence Against Women and Forgiveness

“In the U.S., a woman is beaten by her partner every 9 seconds.” This was the subject line of an email announcing tonight’s Take Back the Night rally at Seton Hall Law School to raise awareness and protest violence against women. Although I have seen the statistic many times and I cover domestic violence in my Family Law course, I am still shocked by the prevalence of domestic abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one-third of all female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner and the proportion of female murder victims killed by an intimate partner has been increasing in recent years.

As shocking and disturbing as these statistics are, I am actually more surprised by number of teenage girls who do not see domestic abuse for what it is—a crime. I am referring to (you guessed it) R & B singer Chris Brown’s attack on his girlfriend, pop star Rihanna. According to court documents, Brown shoved Rihanna’s head against a car window, then punched, bit, and choked her nearly to the point of unconsciousness. He also threatened to kill her. Although Brown has been charged with two felonies—assault and criminal threats—46% of teenagers in a recent survey said that Rihanna was responsible for the attack and 52% said that they were both responsible. Why do so many teens blame the victim?

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14

International Child Abductions and Children’s Best Interests

Some of my family law students have been following the international custody case involving Brazil and the United States. According to David Goldman, a New Jersey resident, in June 2004, his wife took their four year-old son, Sean, to Brazil on vacation where he was supposed to join them a week later. However, a few days after arriving in Brazil, his wife informed him she was divorcing him and would remain in Brazil with their son. This case is not unique. Thousands of parents each year remove children from their country of residence and retain them in another country without the other parent’s consent, in breach of the other parent’s custodial rights. Lawmakers around the world have long known that international child abduction by a parent is a serious problem and have attempted to create a mechanism to ensure that children are returned to their country of residence. Under the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, ratified by 68 nations, the signatory countries agree to promptly return a child who has been wrongfully removed to or retained in another signatory country.

Unfortunately, the Hague’s procedural mechanisms do not always work for two reasons. First, courts do not always comply with the Hague and second, even when they do, abducting parents sometimes go into hiding with the child and cannot be found. The retaining country and its law enforcement officials often make little effort to find the child.

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4

The Beginning of the End of Palimony

Most unmarried couples probably give little thought to their legal rights should the relationship end (either by breakup or death of one of the parties). They might be surprised to learn that a state that was once quite receptive to palimony claims can decide to effectively bar such claims. Couples in New Jersey are about to learn this lesson. The state legislature is considering a bipartisan bill which would require palimony agreements to be in writing and be signed by the party against whom the claim is brought.

The bill, which is expected to pass unopposed, reflects a drastic shift in the state’s approach to palimony agreements. New Jersey courts currently enforce express (oral or written) or implied promises of financial support so long as there is some form of consideration sufficient to form a contract. The New Jersey Supreme Court is also the only state supreme court to hold that “cohabitation is not an essential requirement for a cause of action for palimony,” a requirement in all other states. By requiring palimony agreements to be in writing, the state most favorable to palimony claimants may become one of the most hostile to such claimants.

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23

Stealing Love

Love is a wonderful thing, but sometimes love (or infatuation) leads individuals to engage in behavior that can hurt not only them, but also their families. I am talking about extramarital affairs. Although over 85% of Americans believe that adultery is morally wrong, countless spouses are unfaithful. Last week the NY Times discussed the benefits of an anti-love vaccine which would prevent humans from falling in love with the wrong person (i.e., someone who is committed to another person). While such a drug would do wonders for those who wish to fight the occasional urge to stray, it does little to deter individuals who have no qualms about pursuing someone else’s spouse. The law, however, might already provide a deterrent, albeit a quite controversial one.

A minority of states, including Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah, still recognize a cause of action for alienation of affections against any person who wrongfully interferes with a person’s marriage, thereby causing that person to lose his or her spouse’s affection. Lest you think these causes of action are a thing of the past, this past August, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a $1.5 million verdict against an attorney who had an affair with his client’s wife. The plaintiff, who had hired the attorney in connection with a medical malpractice case, prevailed on his claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and alienation of affections. Further, even after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, some states, including California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, and Virginia, have allowed claims arising from an extramarital affair to be brought against certain professionals, including attorneys, psychiatrists/psychologists, and clergymen providing marital counseling services, on a theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress, professional malpractice, negligent counseling, and breach of fiduciary duty. For example, eight years after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against a priest who had an affair with the plaintiff’s wife to whom the priest was supposedly providing marriage counseling.

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16

Should Parents Lose Custody of Obese Kids?

As I was preparing my new syllabus, I came across a case that forced me to think about the extent to which parents should bear responsibility for their children’s obesity. It is well-known that obesity places children at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, and possibly cancer later in life. Sixteen percent of American children and adolescents are obese; another sixteen percent are overweight. The medical profession has warned that, as a result of the rise in childhood obesity, the current generation of American children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

I believe that parents should make efforts to provide their children with healthy foods and regular exercise. However, I question whether parents who do not control their children’s weight problem should lose custody of their children to the state? Are we willing to hold that a parent who does little to address his child’s obesity has neglected his child in the same way as if he had failed to provide him with adequate nourishment or supervision? Courts and child welfare agencies are grappling wth this issue. In a recent case, In re Brittany T., a New York Family Court ordered the removal of a morbidly obese child from her parents’ home based on the parents’ consistent failure to comply with the court’s order that they take her to the gym 2-3 times a week and attend a nutrition and education program, among other things. Although the case was reversed on appeal, the New York Appellate Division did not hold that child obesity can never be grounds for neglect, but rather that, in this particular case, the Department of Social Services had not shown that the parents had willfully violated the terms of the court’s order. In fact, although Brittany had gained 25 pounds in five months, the evidence showed that her parents had taken her to the gym at least once a week, had met with a nutritionist, and had kept a food log for her. Yes, the food log reflected that Brittany ate “lots of chicken nuggets, lots of pop tarts, hot dogs, and pizza,” but the parents had maintained the log, as ordered.

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