Between the late 1960s and the mid 1970s, a majority of states changed their divorce laws so that one spouse could end a marriage despite the other’s objections. The intent, in part, was to let women with violently abusive husbands escape their domestic prisons. But the reforms, argues Dee, an economist at Swarthmore College, had a perverse result: Some wives whose husbands wanted to leave them—and now could—became so desperate to avoid divorce and the consequent economic hardship that they resorted to homicide.
Between 1968 and 1978, an average of 17 men (and 19 women) died at the hands of their spouses in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nearly 42 percent of the murders took place when “unilateral” divorces were allowed. When other possible influences, such as the unemployment rate, are taken into account, Dee finds that the introduction of unilateral divorce had “no detectable effect” on the level of lethal violence by husbands. But it boosted by 21 percent the incidence of wifely homicides, and the slayings were concentrated in states where laws on the distribution of marital property do not favor wives.
Do the findings mean that making divorce more restrictive would save some men’s lives? Not necessarily. Women today may have adjusted to “the new realities of the weakened marriage contract,” Dee speculates, and taken steps to ensure that divorce would not leave them economically bereft. So they have less reason to resort to murder. Even so, he suggests, “a stronger marriage contract” could enhance women’s bargaining power within marriage and help them obtain, when necessary, adequately generous divorce settlements. And that, he notes, would benefit their children as well.