There’s a popular adage that 50% of marriages end in divorce. That statistic may have originated sometime in the 1980s. As of 2019, it’s actually about 39% of US marriages that end in divorce. Not a stellar number by any means, but not nearly as bad as half, either. From divorce’s beginnings way back in ancient history into the modern day, the grounds that have been recognized as a reason for divorce have evolved and changed. Some of them are more unusual than you might think.
10. Tyrian Purple Dye Stench
Have you ever heard of Tyrian purple dye? Also known as Phoenician purple and Imperial purple, it was a dye made from the shells of sea snails that dates back to around 1570 BC. Once upon a time, purple was considered quite a special color, the sort of thing only the rich and powerful could afford to wear, and this was part of the reason. Developing the dye was no easy process. It took 12,000 snails to make 1.4 grams of dye, or enough to make one single garment.
It was said the dye was worth its weight in silver and in 4th century Rome if you were wearing Tyrian purple it meant you were the Emperor, because no one else could wear it. This was clearly fancy stuff.
The process of making the dye involved either forcing the snails to secrete it by poking them, or just crushing their shells. The problem with the garments made from the dye was that they reeked like rotting fish. The smell apparently didn’t fade, either. And as you can imagine, those who made the dye also ended up stinking like fish as well.
The Talmud specifically lists the stench on the hands of one of the dye-makers as grounds for divorce if the husband became one after marriage.
9. Making Copies of Keys in Rome
The laws around divorce in Ancient Rome were actually rather progressive and at some point allowed a couple to dissolve a union if they both agreed it was a good idea. Originally there were a set number of reasons you could cite in filing for divorce. Many of them were the typical kinds of things you might expect, such as adultery or infertility. Drunkenness was even considered grounds for divorce in Ancient Rome, which does make sense overall.
One of the more unusual grounds cited for divorce was what is essentially a strange property issue. According to the laws at the time, if a wife made copies of the keys for their home, a husband could be justified in getting a divorce from her.
It’s worth noting that, at the time, marriages weren’t necessarily a romantic union between two people so much as they were more business-type relationships meant to strengthen the bonds between two families. With that in mind, if one party were to secretly make copies of the household keys it could be construed as a threat to the communal property. Maybe they were just up to no good, right?
8. Talking Too Much
In Ancient China there were seven reasons that were acceptable for ending a marriage. The custom was male-dominated, thus the seven reasons were ones that a man could use to end the relationship with his wife. In fact, the laws literally translate from Chinese to English as “7 codes for divorcing wives.”
Of the seven, several are the normal reasons that would still get you a divorce today without people being too terribly surprised. Things like adultery or infertility. They start getting a little weirder after that.
The second-tier reasons become less reasonable and include things like jealousy. Remember, this was at a time when a man was allowed to legally have concubines, so his wife was required to not be jealous of these other women if she wanted to stay married.
There were cultural reasons that make more sense in context, such as obedience to the in-laws. According to custom at the time, if a man and woman got married, the husband’s parents became incredibly important and in fact would be considered more important than the wife’s own parents in her life. The in-laws essentially superseded her own parents in the family dynamic, so if she was not obedient to them, that would be grounds for divorce.
The most difficult to understand reasons were things like theft, which in context meant the wife was spending her husband’s money without his permission. Disease was another reason, which was exactly what it sounds like. And the seventh reason was that the wife talks too much. Technically, this wasn’t just a matter of gossip, or a lot of chatter, so much as it meant that the wife would say things that would cause a conflict in the marriage. Regardless of the nature of the talking, it was still a curious reason to get a divorce.
7. Personal Dislike
The laws of divorce in Ancient Egypt became a little muddied as Moses tried to regulate a practice which had come from a different direction than he was heading with it. At the time, biblical writings were prescribing reasons like adultery as acceptable grounds for divorce, but many earlier accepted reasons that were present in Jewish culture and in the nations around Egypt were not necessarily viewed as acceptable any longer.
Scholars have apparently debated how Moses was approaching this issue. The practice of divorce was frowned upon, but had been so socially acceptable prior that he was unable to eradicate it completely. And it does make sense when you look over some reasons that had existed for divorce up to that point, which seemed to include things as mundane and wide-reaching as a husband just not liking his wife anymore.
6. Low Cut Shirts on Men
The Norse culture was a little bit different from others around the world, and that was reflected in their views on divorce as much as it was in the way they did everything else. For instance, women were able to divorce their husbands, which was progressive. They could not divorce them for things like adultery, though, which is maybe not so progressive. So what qualified as an acceptable reason for a wife to end a marriage?
Spousal abuse was one reason for divorce in Norse culture, and actually had degrees of acceptability. A wife could fine her husband for abusing her, and fine and then divorce him if he did it in front of others. Much weirder than that, however, were the sexuality-related reasons for divorce.
If a husband was unable to satisfy his wife she could end the marriage. Likewise, if he was deemed to be effeminate for reasons such as wearing a low-cut shirt, she could also end the marriage.
Have you ever met one of those people who says things like, “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my morning coffee?” It’s the kind of cliche that people put on cute office coffee mugs. But there’s some historical precedent for the importance of coffee in people’s lives. In fact, there was a time when a woman could reasonably divorce her husband if he was unable to get coffee for her.
Back in Constantinople, coffee houses were cultural hubs. Business, politics, and socializing were done in and around coffee houses. There’s a reason Turkey is known for its coffee to this day. So important was coffee to the culture at the time that in the 16th century, if a husband couldn’t provide the proper amount of coffee for his wife, she was legally able to leave him. Of course, the nature of how much coffee was enough isn’t necessarily specified.
4. Mistreatment of Your Mother-in-Law
Every once in a while someone digs up a law from a bygone era that may not pass the muster today if someone were to challenge it in court, but it was on the books at some point in time and is still around today because no one has gotten rid of it. For instance, there was an old law on the books in Wichita, Kansas that stated mistreating your mother-in-law was grounds for ending a marriage.
The nature of mistreatment may be up for debate, especially considering how many people have issues with their in-laws. Since divorce is generally not a municipal matter, you have to assume that this law, whenever it was written, it was at a very different time.
Consider what life might have been like in the 1600s in France. When you got married, you were legally required to consummate the marriage. You didn’t have to like your spouse, and certainly not love your spouse, but you absolutely had to satisfy your spouse. Or at least try. If you could not do this, you were committing a crime.
This became a matter of public record thanks to the trial of the Marquis de Langey. He was not the first man to face an impotence trial and was not the last, but he was as publicly humiliated as all the others. At the time, if a woman wanted to end her marriage the idea was generally frowned upon but a matter of impotence would make it entirely legal and proper because if no children could be born, the marriage was considered basically useless.
In the 1600s, you could prove someone was impotent through the most basic means imaginable. A panel of would-be experts simply poked and examined the man to see if he was able to achieve an erection or not. As you can imagine, the kind of stress and anxiety in performing on demand probably put the kibosh on a number of men who might otherwise have been able to perform, but just couldn’t do so in front of a crowd. And to make matters worse, it all became part of public record. If the man was proven unable to rise to the occasion, the divorce was granted.
2. Bad Breath
A wicked case of halitosis can ruin a lot of things, from a business meeting to a first date. Who knew it could also ruin a marriage, as well? According to researchers from Tel Aviv University, bad breath is grounds for divorce as described in the Talmud.
A Jewish prenuptial agreement known as a ketubah included halitosis as a kind of disability that could be cited as reason for divorce. In fact, bad breath was so frowned upon that a someone with bad breath was even forbidden from performing a wedding ceremony for others.
On the upside, the Talmud also went out of its way to explain what causes bad breath, and how to fix it. There were a variety of things that may have caused it, from not drinking enough water to eating too many lentils. Another potential cause was depleting one’s reproductive fluids. The prescription for fixing the problem involves things like eating plant resin or walking four steps after a meal. Maybe not super scientific, but no one’s perfect.
1. Being an Idiot
There’s a nearly endless string of cliche comedies that present dysfunctional marriages in which the spouses disparage each other and at some point the wife will call the husband an idiot or vice versa. It used to be a pretty standard trope in sitcoms (we’re looking at you, Kevin James), and you’ll still find it and some hacky writing today. But maybe it wasn’t fully without a basis in reality. Turns out, being an idiot is legal grounds for divorce.
This was another one of those old-timey laws that was on the books in Mississippi. According to that one, being an idiot at the time of marriage was grounds for divorce later on. You have to remember, of course, that idiot had a different definition back in the day than it does now.
Today when you call someone an idiot you’re just insulting them by suggesting that they’re not particularly intelligent. But idiot had a serious definition once upon a time. Back in the day, idiot was a term you would use to describe someone who had an intellectual disability. Not as an insult, but as an actual psychiatric diagnosis. In fact, an idiot was someone who had a mental age of two years or less.
In time, the term idiot was dropped from the lexicon and mental health professionals took up the term mental retardation to replace it. And of course that term has also been abandoned as well, but it’s all the evolution of the same idea.