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23 J. Legal Stud. 869 (1994)


Spouse abuse is no longer a secret. It has become a thorn in America's conscience. Abuse even warranted a lengthy Supreme Court discussion in an opinion on abortion. It is certainly worth thinking about whether anything systemic caused the apparent outbreak of violence in the home. If there is a legal "fix" that would remove incentives to abuse, and therefore reduce the incidence of abuse at the margin, we should know about it.

It is the thesis of this article that increased abuse and other undesirable behavior is a natural consequence of the fact that in some states the marriage contract cannot be enforced. We therefore reexamine the idea of marriage as a relational contract, pose the question of whether it has been rendered illusory by reforms in family law, and demonstrate empirically that changes in divorce and alimony statutes affect not only divorce rates and the parties' relative wealth following divorce but also their behavior prior to and during marriage. We conclude that it is time to question whether unilateral no-fault divorce is worth its costs to the institution of marriage.


Reprinted with permission of the Journal of Legal Studies.

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