While the epigram “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies to many things in our fast-moving world, divorce certainly isn’t one of them.
Indeed, in this, our 15th anniversary edition of Divorce Magazine, we can attest to just how much divorce has changed over the past decade and a half. Everything from attitudes, laws, demographics, cultural mores and standards, media, technology, resources and more have combined to dramatically change the divorce system, divorcing people, and the divorce professionals who serve them.
To explore some of these changes, we interviewed renowned family court Judges on both sides of the border: American Judge Lynn Toler and Canadian Justice Harvey Brownstone.
Our Interview with Judge Lynn Toler
DM: Judge Toler, from your perspective on the bench, what divorce issues have changed the most over the last 15 years?
JT: I’d say that the change with the greatest impact has been the declining divorce rate. There are a few reasons for this, but it all starts with the fact that the marriage rate is going down. More people are choosing to cohabitate, more women are choosing to focus on their careers, and the notion of having children without being married has lost its social stigma. These days, more people can test out the waters of marriage before taking the plunge. They’re saying to themselves “economically and socially, I don’t have to get married the way my parents did – and so I won’t.”
DM: Has the type person choosing to remain single changed over the last 15 years, or has it remained the same?
JT: It’s changed. Fifteen years ago, highly educated individuals with higher economic resources or prospects were marrying less compared with the rest of society. Today, it’s the opposite: individuals at lower economic levels with less education are marrying less often, because they’re unwilling to make the financial commitment of marriage. They don’t want to share their resources just in case their partner isn’t trustworthy, or in case it leads to divorce.
DM: Can you speak a little more about the costs of divorce, and how that has changed the dynamics of divorce over the last 15 years?
JT: Yes. Because divorce has become such an expensive proposition, the courts have adjusted over the last 15 years to become more accessible, and offer information on alternative dispute resolution such as mediation. This is a big change. Fifteen years ago, nobody – including the courts – were talking about mediation. But today, it’s widespread. In fact, some courts are mandated to provide this information, in the hopes that battling spouses will think long and hard about their options before committing to a long, painful and very expensive litigation process.
DM: We’re seeing many reports of Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools playing a role in the divorce story. Do you see this in your court?
JT: Yes. I’d say that, in my court, 8 out of 10 divorce cases reference social media in some way – whether it’s a spouse changing his or her marital status online, or searching for a fling with someone from their past or, sometimes, a total stranger. This is a very big change, of course, because social media is making intimate “hook ups” so much easier. In the past, people who wanted to cheat had to at least put some thought and effort into the process. You had to leave your house. You had to meet someone. And it could take weeks or months for something to happen – and so many people didn’t put their cheating intentions into action. But these days, you can just hop online within seconds you can connect with all kinds of people – many of whom are looking for the same thing, which is an escape from their marriage.
DM: Looking at general attitudes on divorce, you noted earlier that the stigma of not getting married is diminishing or has disappeared. What about the stigma of getting divorced?
JT: That has also pretty much disappeared, but I see that as both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in a sense that, compared to the past, many spouses don’t feel trapped in a bad or abusive marriage. It also helps people who must divorce avoid the devastating of saying “I failed.” But generally speaking, the ease at which people choose divorce is, I must confess, troubling to me. People just aren’t thinking as hard and as clearly about choosing a partner as they need to. They aren’t asking key questions. Instead, they’re swept up in the romance, and in the back of their minds they say “if things don’t work out, I’ll just divorce.”
DM: It sounds as if you’re saying that divorce shouldn’t be the back-up plan; it should be the last resort.
JT: Yes, that’s correct. People aren’t investing time on the front-end of their relationship anymore. And when things start to get bumpy – whether that’s a month into the marriage, six months, or a couple of years – they find that they aren’t compatible. So while I’d say that it’s a step in the right direction that divorce is not seen as a personal failure – because sometimes things just don’t work out, and divorce is an appropriate response to a marriage that cannot be saved – I don’t think we want to make divorce ordinary. That’s not good for the spouses involved, it’s not good for society, and without question, it’s not good for children of divorce.
DM: Looking ahead, what are some of the trends in divorce that you see unfolding over the next 15 years?
JT: To start with, I think the marriage rate is going to continue to tick down. This has already happened, dramatically, in many European countries. I see the same thing happening here. For those who do marry and, unfortunately, have to divorce, I think that they step towards mediation and away from litigation is very positive will continue over the coming years. And it’s not just individuals who are learning more about mediation and taking advantage of it. The mediation process itself is getting better and better at hammering out a resolution that works for everyone involved.
DM: You spoke earlier about technology and social media making cheating – emotionally or physically – more accessible. Do you see any positive applications of technology in the coming years?
JT: Yes, certainly. The Internet offers an incredibly rich pool of information for divorcing people. They can watch videos to learn about processes, they can download forms, they can read articles, they can find lawyers and other divorce professionals. All of this is and will make things more efficient and effective for everyone. I also think that credible online dating websites – the ones that put some science into their methods, and aren’t just virtual singles bars – can help people find someone with whom they’re compatible with on many levels, including the ones that make a marriage last and work. These sites also give people access to a wider pool of people than might exist in their own community. But again, there needs to be some science and competence behind this. It can’t be window shopping for your next partner.
Overall, though, I think it’s generational, too. My generation and probably the next one as well are still wowed by all of this technology. But the younger generation – the people who are growing up with this technology and in a way take it for granted – will have a better time, because they’ll be more acclimated to it all. I think they’ll set the tone for how to use technology to meet people, to find resources to build real relationships, and for many of them, how to strengthen and fortify their marriage.
Judge Lynn Toler, a graduate of Harvard and The University of Pennsylvania Law School, served as a municipal court judge for eight years. She presides over the courtroom on the nationally syndicated television show Divorce Court, and is a frequent, long-time Divorce Magazine contributor. She is also the author of My Mother’s Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius, and co-author of Put it in Writing: Creating Agreements Between Family and Friends.
To read our interview with Justice Harvey Brownstone, please click here.