Movement to end no-fault divorces spurs talk of marriage, its meaning Some fear abused spouses will lose courage to leave


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Andree Dallape's marriage began well, but within a year, she says, it had become a series of beatings and abuse. It took her almost 11 years to summon the courage to leave her husband.

"The first time he hit me, I was six months pregnant with my oldest daughter," recalled Dallape, now of Ocala. "He'd been out all night, and I was crying. He took my head in his hand and slammed me against the wall."

Eventually, a decade ago, Dallape walked out with her three children in search of a spouse-abuse shelter after a night in which she said her husband took her from a neighbor's house and dragged her by her hair through her backyard. A few months later, she got a divorce.

Dallape hates to think how hard it would have been to muster the courage to leave if the state's no-fault divorce law, which a Republican state lawmaker is proposing to change, had not been in effect.

Sometime before the legislative session begins in March, the lawmaker, state Rep. Steve Wise of Jacksonville, will introduce a bill to end no-fault divorce for contested cases involving children.

Wise wants to require proof of fault -- desertion, infidelity, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction or a prison sentence of more than three years -- if one spouse opposes the divorce.

The proposal marks the first significant attempt to scale back Florida's 25-year-old no-fault divorce law.

Although the chances that Wise's bill will pass the Legislature are considered slim, his effort, and similar campaigns under way in at least 20 other states, have sparked intense discussion of divorce laws and, more pointedly, the importance of marriage.

Breakdown of the family

Behind the talk is a sense that the nation is in the throes of a values crisis and that the breakdown of the family is to blame.

"Right now, you can go down to the courthouse and almost presto change-o, you're not married anymore," said John Dowless, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. "It's not just a marriage license being torn up, but lives are being affected."

Wise, who has been married for 33 years, contends that no-fault divorce, once seen as a panacea for couples trapped in loveless marriages, has "weakened the fabric of the family."

"Just because you roll up the toothpaste wrong one day doesn't mean you ought to go get a divorce," said Wise, 55.

"We ought not say, 'I can walk out on a commitment,' when there are children involved. In many cases, it's a selfish motivation. And most of the time, people don't understand what divorce is going to cost them and how it's going to crush the standard of living for them and their children."

Wise has already drawn support from Christian-based family organizations, some lifelong homemakers and men's advocates who say no-fault divorces keep them from their children.

Yet many family law experts, who acknowledge that it is probably too easy to get married, also maintain that going backward will solve nothing. Eliminating no-fault, they say, would not greatly curtail divorces.

"The answer is to better understand what makes for a better marriage and not to go back to what was found unacceptable a quarter-century ago," said Ira Lurvey, a divorce lawyer in Los Angeles who is chairman of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section.

Driving the movement to change the laws are statistics indicating that half of all marriages end in divorce, that one in four children is living in a single-parent home and that women's living standards drop an average of 30 percent after a divorce.

As a result of these figures, reform advocates contend that no-fault divorce, in which either spouse may cancel a marriage at any time, is a failure and has victimized women.

"In a fault-based system, people's conduct is taken into consideration," said Kristi Hamrick, director of communications for the Family Research Council, based in Washington.

"The person who wants to end the marriage would no longer have all the power. The one who has been wronged by infidelity or other abuse can finally have some say in the courts."

Fear of reprisals

But advocates for battered women contend that dumping no-fault divorce would make it harder for women to leave abusive relationships -- especially if they feared reprisals for testifying to abuse in court.

"Drumming up the courage to go fight a man in court and tell the world everything he's done would be incredible," said Judy Wilson of the Spouse Abuse and Rape Crisis Center in Marion County, Fla.

"If she makes all that public, he'll kill her."

Other critics and many divorce lawyers say that repealing no-fault laws would lead to more acrimony and hypocrisy between spouses determined to split.

The best hope, some say, may lie in making it harder for people to get married, not divorced.

"There's a real question about what we should legislate," said David L. Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council in Washington, an organization that has no official stance on no-fault reforms.

"For now, the churches are doing more premarital counseling. But there's got to be more. People have stars in their eyes when they get married. They don't want to sit down and face the reality.

"But they've got to be told that the honeymoon doesn't last forever and that a good marriage takes hard work by both spouses."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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