Cambridge Brief History of Divorce which indicates these ideas reflect societies views only in the last 30 years. While it is specifically about England - it reflects changes that were happening in the Western World.
[...] Way back in the days of yore, when the church was more powerful than the monarch, marriage was a church institution and so divorce was also the preserve of the church. Marriage was for life and divorce exceedingly rare, although the church would occasionally grant a divorce “a mensa et thoro” which enabled people to live apart if there had been significant cruelty, but not to remarry. (Henry VIII, of course, did whatever he wanted.) In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was possible to get a divorce granted by Act of Parliament, but such an option was only open to the rich. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was the first divorce law of general application.
The 1857 Act introduced divorce through the court. Men were able to “petition the court” for a divorce on the basis of their wife’s adultery, which would have to be proved, as would the absence of any collusion or condonation of that adultery. Women who wanted to divorce their husbands needed also to prove an aggravating factor of the adultery, such as rape or incest. The High Court in London was the only place to get your divorce, and proceedings were held in open court, enabling society to be scandalised by the personal details revealed during the process.
The huge social changes in England during and following the First World War, particularly for the role of women in society, led to divorce law reform as it did to reforms in other areas. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 put men and women on an equal footing for the first time, enabling either spouse to petition the court for a divorce on the basis of their spouse’s adultery. The requirement to prove the deed and the absence of collusion remained, as did the procedural requirements. In 1937 another Matrimonial Causes Act introduced three more options for unhappy spouses to take to court, and so it became possible to divorce on the grounds of cruelty, desertion and incurable insanity as well as adultery. These were termed “matrimonial offences”. As before, each allegation needed to be proved by the petitioner’s oral evidence. At this stage, parliament also introduced a bar to divorcing in the first three years of marriage.
The Second World War brought about another period of great social change, and a start to the modern era of life as we know it now. Marriages broke down under the strain of war, or its after-effects, in numbers never before experienced and at all levels of society. The church and the government became increasingly concerned that the divorce laws were no longer fit for purpose – unhappy couples would arrange for one spouse to book into a hotel at the seaside for a weekend to commit the adultery necessary for them to divorce. A Royal Commission in the 1950s could not decide the best way forward, and in the mid-1960’s the Archbishop of Canterbury took up the baton. His office prepared a report demanding reform of the law to ensure that people could obtain a divorce if they could show the breakdown of their marriage, and the government set the Law Commission to research the most appropriate way to modernise the divorce laws. This process gestated the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which although now consolidated in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 still contains the divorce law we are subject to today.
Like a great deal of social policy legislation, the Divorce Reform Act 1969 was a compromise. It enabled either party to seek a divorce on the basis of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, as the Archbishop wanted in the 1960s, but requires that the breakdown be proved by evidence of one of five “facts”: adultery, behaviour, desertion, or separation for 2 years and the other party’s consent to a divorce or separation for five years. You can see that although this Act removed the concept of a matrimonial offence, the old 1937 grounds of cruelty (now termed “unreasonable behaviour”) and desertion in essence remained. However, the big advance in 1969 was that there is no “fault” as such involved in petitions based on 2 or 5 years’ separation. Procedurally there were also changes: it was possible for the first time to get a divorce through the local county court rather than coming to the High Court in London. During the 1970s, courts developed the “special procedure” of divorce-on-paper that still represents the way things are done in the vast majority of divorces.