In primitive civilizations marriage and marriage dissolution were considered private matters which did not require involvement of any authority above the individuals in the relationship. The Romans first placed marriage and divorce under state regulation during the reign of Augustus. When Christianity spread about 300 A.D., governments came under religious control. The Catholic Church did not permit divorce unless one of the parties had not been converted to Christianity prior to marriage, which then made the marriage null and void.
During the early 1500s, the Protestant Reformation began a slow movement in Europe to separate the laws governing marriage from the precinct of the Roman Catholic Church. Henry VIII wanted the Catholic Church to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon because all the male offspring she bore died shortly after birth, and Henry believed he could secure a male heir by marrying another woman. When Pope Clement VII refused, Henry took control of Church properties in England and made himself head of the Anglican Church. This separation from the Vatican made divorce possible in England by an act of Parliament. Still, divorce remained rare; when it occurred it was a costly legislative process and could only be initiated by husbands. The resistance toward and rarity of divorce continued well into the nineteenth century.
Divorce law in the American colonies was somewhat influenced by the British, but more so by the colonists themselves. England did not want its American colonies to enact any type of law, which conflicted with English law. Thus, a colonial divorce was not considered final until the English monarch had approved it. Nevertheless, several colonies adopted their own laws permitting divorce, often under odd circumstances. Under one late seventeenth century Pennsylvania law if a married man committed sodomy or bestiality, his punishment was castration, after which the wife was permitted to divorce him. In Connecticut divorce was allowed on the grounds of adultery, desertion, and the husband’s failure in his conjugal duties. In Massachusetts, divorce was permitted if one of the parties committed adultery.
The U.S. Constitution left divorce regulation to the states. State legislatures passed laws that granted divorce based on a showing of fault. If a divorce was contested, the divorcing spouse was required to establish, before a court, specific grounds for the action. If the court felt that the divorcing spouse had not sufficiently proven the grounds alleged, the petition for divorce could be denied and the case dismissed.
The most common traditional grounds for divorce were cruelty, desertion, and adultery. Other grounds included nonsupport or neglect, alcoholism or other drug addiction, insanity, criminal conviction, and voluntary separation. In 1933, New Mexico became the first state to allow divorce on the ground of incompatibility. In 1969 California completely revised its divorce laws, providing that a filing party merely show irreconcilable differences resulting in an irremediable breakdown of the marriage. California’s was the first comprehensive “no-fault” divorce law, and it inspired nationwide divorce law reform. In 1970 the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws prepared a Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, which provides for no-fault divorce if a court finds that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Many states adopted the act. By 1980, nearly every state legislature had enacted laws allowing no-fault divorces or divorces after a specified period of separation. Some states replaced all traditional grounds with a single no-fault provision. Other states added the ground of irreconcilable differences to existing statutes. In those states a divorce petitioner remains free to file for divorce under traditional grounds.