Of Contracts, Broken

Over the past few weeks, the Mississippi Legislature has bandied about a few anemic attempts at strengthening laws protecting victims of domestic violence. Among them is an addition to the state's divorce laws that would allow judges to grant a divorce if a couple has not been cohabiting for at least five years.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Summerall, one of the authors of the bill, admitted that five years was a long time to wait, but, he said, Mississippi is a conservative state. Quick to fall back on conservative buzzwords, he added that our state is pro-family and pro-marriage, and therefore, divorces were just going to take longer here than in other (presumably anti-family and anti-marriage) states.

Take away all of marriage's pretty trappings—the white dress, the romance, the white picket fence and the 2.5 children—and you're left with a simple legal contract. Two people vow to love and honor each other for the rest of their lives, and the marriage license seals those vows into a contract. Too often, however, one or both of the parties to that contract break their vows, breaching the contract.

Physical violence and emotional abuse constitute such a breach. No one who loves would hit their loved one; no one who honors would assault with foul and destructive language.

Ask any domestic-abuse victim what it's like having a spouse who refuses to let go, and you'll hear horror stories. Abused women—it's usually women—with self-esteem and confidence as battered and bruised as their bodies, find themselves in an endless nightmare from which they cannot awake. Children become pawns in the abuser's game of subtle tortures and overt threats. Witnesses to ongoing violence, if not victims themselves, frequently display signs of post-traumatic stress disorder on a level seen in combat veterans.

Luckier victims manage to find resources to escape their abusers. Whether through family, friends or shelters, they begin the long process of healing emotional and physical scars. Yet, in Mississippi, they must still contend with a marriage contract held so sacrosanct by our state Legislature.

Without a true no-fault divorce, abuse victims in Mississippi have few choices: They can wait until their abuser gets tired of controlling them and grants a divorce, or they can go to court. Neither option is cheap or fast. In court, it's a whose-lawyer-can-make-the-best-argument game. In either case, the abuser is still in charge, capable of manipulating and inflicting more pain on the victim.

It's time to come out from behind the buzzwords and see the truth of domestic violence. Mississippi has come a long way from the days where the law considered women mere chattel, vessels for whatever meanness their men could dish out. Providing victims a way to permanently—and without the say-so of their abusers—shed their toxic marriage, respects the marriage vows in a way that tossing off an easy catchphrase like "family values" never will.

It may be too late for this session, but in honor of every domestic-abuse victim, make it a priority for next year.


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