40 years of the law that set families free

More than two million couples have broken up in these four decades

4 min
Activists of the Democratic Association of Women, in a closed pro-abortion protest at the Basilica of San Miguel in Madrid, December 1977

BarcelonaNeighbours knocked on Maria Ribas's door looking for advice from a woman who had already split amicably before there was a divorce. Her children, now well into their forties, remember how the dining room at home was occasionally turned into a consulting room for women who wanted to know what they would encounter if they dared to follow in her footsteps. "Back then it wasn't so normal to split or get divorced", says Ribas.

Those were the years when the divorce law, 30/1981 of 7 July, was just beginning to be introduced, and it came as a breath of fresh air for a society that was waiting for it to bring it into line with most of the countries around it. In all honesty, however, the 1981 law is the second law: the Republic went ahead and between 1932 and 1939 there was another one in force, until the dictatorship repealed it and declared all divorces null and void, thus condemning families - and above all, women - to drag out lives they did not want, to put sticks in the wheels and to remake themselves sentimentally.

In the last months of the UCD government, on 22 June, 1981, Parliament approved with 162 votes in favor, 128 against and seven abstentions the reform of the Civil Code that allowed four decades later to undo a marriage legally. The political discussion was tough, due to pressure from the ultra-conservative right and the Catholic Church, however, in this atmosphere of tension, the incipient strength of feminism and the will of the Ucedist minister Francisco Fernández Ordóñez, later in the ranks of the PSOE, were key to move the law forward, despite the fact that 30 of his MPs broke the discipline of vote. "We were lucky for Fernández Ordóñez", recalls lawyer Magda Oranich, who on 14 August of that year, five days after the law came into force, sixteen divorce suits at once were already filed. He was a man ahead of his time, and he got his own people who did not accept divorce by mutual consent into trouble. The minister was the target of reproaches from the most conservative: "There is nothing as tiring as fighting for causes that are obvious, but, fortunately, we have managed to overthrow an important barricade", he told them.

Victory in the Senate

In the parliamentary debate, the so-called hardship clause, which gave judges the power to deny a petition for divorce, did not succeed. In order to divorce, the couple had to have been married for at least two years and split for at least one year. This meant that the first couples to be granted a divorce were those who had been living separate lives for years and who had formed new clandestine families, explains Oranich, who recalls how the rush to make relationships official forced some judges to talk to sick and dying people. "Under Franco, children out of wedlock were totally unprotected", he says. The situation was corrected in March with a law that gave filiation and equality to offspring regardless of the legal relationship of the parents. 

Ares Farré's parents had been "apart for two years and when the law was passed they rushed to court. "They were probably the first in Lleida to get divorced", she says now, and recalls that "the worst thing was the whispering everywhere" and how the nuns at the religious school where she attended the first years of primary school treated her and the other girl who was in the same situation "differently". "You went to birthday parties and you felt you were pitiful", she recalls. Divorce was freedom, but at the same time, in those early years and in certain sectors, it was also a sign of the families, some of whom tried to hide it by inventing trips or stays at relatives' houses. In Barcelona, Ribas's children were also "the only ones", and this was a "secular and progressive" school, she says. "We tried to normalise the family situation, but the environment did not normalise it", she adds.

Montse Cornet sitting in the armchair in her dining room in Barcelona.

A year before the approval, Montse Cornet, wife and mother of four children, decided not to wait for the divorce and to split from her husband. At the age of 45, on 31 July, 1979, she left the family home accompanied by her only underage son, fed up with the life they made her lead and not knowing what would await her once she closed the door. "I was so determined that I would have done it even if I had had to go alone", she recalls sitting in her dining room. Her bridge was a ramshackle little flat left to her by the neighbourhood priest, who, after talking to her husband, advised her not to return and told her she had made a good choice by leaving, she says amused. Despite her husband's reluctance, a few years later she had got a job in the insurance world that gave her enough to get by without any luxuries but, she confesses, she felt a lot of happiness and joy for the good things that life offered her. "At the age of 45 I wanted to know what sex was, and I discovered it", she says.

"We divorced despite him asking me to stay, but then he was the one who wanted a divorce", she explains, sitting in her dining room. "I was fine with the way we were, because I just wanted freedom". She says she gained nothing, even though her husband had property and a good business, and recalls how her husband's lawyer questioned her willingness to start from scratch. "He thought I had a lover", says this octogenarian writer, semi-finalist of the Sant Jordi award, who dramatised her separation in Entre dos estius.

The need for prior and obligatory separation remained intact until the 2005 law of express divorce, which also eliminated the justification of causes as diverse as alcoholism or drug addiction, infidelity or abandonment of the home. In these 40 years, more than 2.2 million couples have divorced in Spain, according to the General Council of the Judiciary, placing it at 1.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, in the European average. After more than 100,000 and 200,000 lawsuits annually during the 1990s and 2000s, already in 2019 they dropped to 162,000, of which 1,100 corresponded to the end of same-sex marriages, another milestone achieved in 2005.