Breakdown of marriages was the unexpected consequence of the French Revolution. The French revolutionaries saw marriage as a Catholic imposition which made people less free. They argued that people should be free to love, free to marry, and if the marriage became loveless, then the couple should be free to get a divorce.
In ancien régime France divorce did not exist, as marriage was regarded as both, a civil contract and a sacrament. The revolutionaries argued that a marriage was a civil contract between a man and a woman, either of whom should have the power to cancel the contract. They argued that a marriage without love was tantamount to slavery, and that if people were free to marry and free to divorce, they would feel more love for each other.
Some pro-divorce activists came up with powerful arguments to convince French society that happy couples would breed more children and this would increase France’s population. They argued that happy couples were likely to be patriotic and nationalistic—they were likely to inculcate their children with revolutionary Republican values.
A liberal divorce law was passed by the French Legislative Assembly on September 20, 1792. This law treated marriage as a purely civil contract in which any man or woman, age 21 or more years, could enter without parental consent, and which could be cancelled by either party on the grounds of mutual consent and incompatibility, and due to cases such as insanity, cruelty, abusive behavior, condemnation for certain crimes, desertion for at least two years, or emigration. The divorced couples were permitted to get remarried.
With the passage of the liberal divorce law, the divorce rates in France exploded. Thousands of couples filed for divorce. Both sexes had equal rights to file for divorce. But between two-thirds to three-quarters of all divorces were initiated by women. The most common complaint of the women was domestic abuse and abandonment. The pro-divorce activists cheered the rise in divorces. They declared that French women had been freed from “martial despotism.”
The highest number of divorce cases were filed by the urban middle class couples. Among the rich and the poor, and those living in the rural areas, divorce was uncommon. But the high number of divorces and remarriages created a backlash in France's urban areas which had seen a maximum number of divorces and remarriages. Many people started longing for the stable family system that used to be there during the time of the ancien régime.
When Napoleon took power in 1799, he initiated a discussion to annul the liberal divorce law. In 1803, he passed a new civil code which, while not making make divorce illegal, as it was during the ancien régime, made it much harder for couples to get divorced.