The Henderson Gleaner

The 'why' of divorce often goes unanswered

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
June 5, 2002
The Henderson Gleanor

Divorce is as unique as the people involved.

"That's the thing about the divorce law: There is no one-size-fits-all rule," said Henderson Circuit Court domestic relations commissioner Steve Gold.

Although possible causes crop up during the legal process, what actually sparks a divorce is often a mystery to on-lookers, according to Elizabeth Vaughn, who was domestic relations commissioner for eight years and was recently appointed family court judge.

"I think the other problems pre-exist the divorce, for the most part, such as alcohol problems, drug problems, extra-marital affairs, problems with how to rear children, problems with money -- all those things," she said. "A lot of divorces are accumulations of little hurts over a period of years. There's no one big thing that triggers it. It's just that finally there's that one thing that is the last straw."

Simple incompatibility is certainly one reason, according to The Gleaner's study of a year's worth of divorce cases, but it was specifically mentioned as the cause in only two of 157 divorce cases reviewed.

"We just did not get along," said one 33-year-old woman in filing for divorce. "There was a lack of communication and he just does not work regularly."

"The marriage isn't what it used to be," said a 36-year-old woman. "We just don't get along."

The two causes most often cited in court records as leading to divorce were infidelity and substance abuse. But infidelity was identified as a factor in only 17 out of 157 divorce cases, and substance abuse contributed to about the same number of divorces. So although court documents sometimes reveal possible reasons why a divorce is occurring, for the most part the question of "why?" is left unanswered in court records.

Gold said "why?" doesn't really come into the legal equation any longer. "Any of those old fault-based grounds don't have anything to do with the divorce," Gold said.

One term explains that absence: No-fault divorce, which has been in effect in Kentucky the past three decades.

Vaughn said one fault of no-fault divorce is that it doesn't provide much of an outlet for the very real anguish people are undergoing.

"People are frustrated if they can't tell their story -- they just are," Vaughn said. "People want to bring those things to the court's attention. Those are the things that have caused the marriage to fall apart. It's something that's caused them pain. It's brought them embarrassment and humiliation. And then they get into court and somebody says it doesn't make any difference.

"So they try to get that information in (the record) in such a way that it will make a difference, so that it will be relevant as evidence. Maybe with having a social worker in family court some of those kinds of issues will be addressed and some things can be resolved before people get to the point of no return" of placing it on the public record.

Addressing the issues early on -- even before the marriage takes place -- is a strategy that is being contemplated in at least 19 state legislatures, which are considering passing laws requiring pre-marital education. A similar approach has been adopted by Circuit Judge Bill Cunningham of Eddyville. He recently sponsored a "marriage jubilee" at Lyon County High School to educate prospective brides and grooms about common problems they will face in marriage.

Topics of the free three-hour seminar included finances, in-laws, sex, compatibility, spirituality, empty nest syndrome and substance abuse.

Domestic relations commissioner Gold agreed that the problems that cause divorce should be headed off early.

"I've always advocated that they made a mistake when they did away with the three-day waiting period" for marriage licenses a decade ago, Gold said. "A lot of people get married and within a month they decide it's a mistake. If they had to wait a month before they got married they might have found that out."

(One couple in The Gleaner's study realized very quickly they had made a mistake. They separated two weeks after marrying. Another marriage lasted less than seven months.)

Vaughn also agreed that prevention is a good strategy, but reiterated that she thinks the newly created family court can more effectively deal with the causes of divorce than does the system used up to this point.

Couples who are divorcing, she said, "get into a courtroom and find out part of this is just an accounting problem, and no one's taking into consideration the fact that my heart is broken, or I've worked really hard, or that someone was mean to me or that I really don't want to be separated from my child."

The court system up to now has been "almost a breeding ground for those hostilities," she said. "I hope the family court can make that process a little less painful.

"There have been some people who have criticized the family court idea, saying they're afraid it's going to be a feel-good court. What would be wrong with feeling good? Rarely is there anything that comes out of those courts but pain" and it would be good public policy "to lessen that pain a little.

"People lose weight, their hair falls out, their kids' grades go down, economically they're in a different situation. There are myriad problems that don't get addressed -- and maybe can't get addressed by the courts -- but surely the courts shouldn't aggravate those problems."