May 28, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
Last time I discussed the fact that marriage rates are at an all-time low in the United States. That’s not a good thing for anyone because, generally speaking, married relationships are better for men, women, children and society generally than any other kind. So we should view the decline in marriage rates with concern.
Now, along with the Psychology Today article I linked to, I focused on one likely reason for the decrease in marriage – money. Put simply, women have gained a lot in the workplace over the past few decades and now often out-earn men. But overall, they haven’t adjusted their expectations of men to reflect their own well-being. Men still “marry down,” but women seldom do. One result is a decline in marriage rates.
But women’s choice to forego marriage with lower-earning men is hardly the only cause of the marriage slump. Family law is too. Which is the greater influence, I can’t guess, but no article on the drop in marriage rates is complete without a large section on family law and family courts.
These days, it takes a brave man – or a foolish one – to marry. He’s even braver or more foolish if he fathers children. Why? Because he runs several enormous risks if he does.
First, divorce is a no-fault matter. That means his wife can divorce him for any or no reason. If she does, laws on the division of the marital estate uniformly hold that, whatever her contribution thereto, she gets half of what they’ve accumulated, at least. Particularly if there are children in the family, Mom will get primary custody and the house his earnings likely did the most to pay for.
Primary custody usually means that Dad is relegated to the status of every-other-weekend visitor. So all the love, affection and support he gave to little Andy or Jenny is as nothing. He becomes little more than a stranger to them. Does he experience overwhelming anguish at the loss of his kids? Well, that’s his tough luck and of course theirs. Fathers in custody cases are as much as eight times as likely to commit suicide as are other men. Children without a father exhibit a plethora of emotional, behavioral and educational problems.
Having lost the house and the kids, Dad then gets to pay Mom child support and alimony. Both are calculated by the judge who may create fictions about what Dad can earn to do so. As the Office of Child Support Enforcement has long told us, child support orders are routinely set at levels higher than fathers can pay. If Dad falls behind, interest and fees are tacked on to what he owes. If he falls too far behind, he loses his license to drive, other occupational licenses, perhaps his passport and of course he may go to jail. But whatever the case, alimony and child support laws encourage Mom to divorce and Dad to not marry in the first place.
If Mom chooses to thwart his visitation rights, she probably won’t pay any price for doing so. He’ll hand large sums of money to a lawyer to file motions, take depositions and appear in court, but it may take several rounds of all that to convince a judge to simply enforce the order as written. Never mind make-up time or attorney’s fees.
In short, for men and particularly fathers, marriage is a dangerous proposition. Yes, most women are considerate enough to refrain from using the legal system as a truncheon with which to bludgeon their ex, but if you’re a man, how do you know ahead of time which will and which won’t? Far too many men have been put through the family court wringer for other men to have failed to notice.
If we really value marriage, and we should, we’ll make wholesale changes to family laws.