The Rise and Fall of Divorce

According to the Office for National Statistics, between 1970 and 1993, the number of divorces per thousand married women in England and Wales rose from 4.7 to 14.1. In 1993, there were 165,018 divorces and 299,197 marriages in England and Wales. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the divorce rate in the US rose from 14.9 per thousand married women in 1970 to a peak of 22.8 peaked in 1980.

These are, in my opinion, the five main reasons why the divorce rate has increased:

1. Divorce is easier to obtain. Henry VIII had to break from the Catholic Church to obtain a divorce. In the UK, prior to 1857, divorce called for an Act of Parliament. In 1858, there were just 24 divorces in England and Wales; in 1900, there were 512. Until as late as 1971, divorce usually required proof of fault, such as adultery, abandonment, cruelty, or intoxication. Between 1971 and 1972, the number of divorces in England and Wales leapt from 74,437 to 119,025. In 1970, California became the first US state to introduce no-fault divorce. In 2005, France reduced the required period of separation from six to just two years.

2. Women are more independent. Women have better rights, including under divorce law. More and more women are financially independent. If they are unable to provide for themselves, they can claim welfare. All this means that they are in a much better bargaining position. Wives petition about two-thirds of divorces, and generally get a better settlement.

3. Divorce is more socially acceptable. Today, many people have unrealistically high expectations of marriage, condemning their marriage to failure. With the increasing secularization of society, marriage is seen more as a social contract and less as a sacrosanct union. In the past, couples often stayed together for the sake of the children; today, more and more people take the view that, by removing them from conflict, divorce can actually be good for the children. As a result, divorce attracts much less stigma than it used to.

4. Divorce leads to more divorce. Another reason that divorce attracts much less stigma than it used to is simply that it has become so common. In addition, studies have found that: compared to first marriages, second and subsequent marriages are more likely to end in divorce; couples in reconstituted families are more likely to get divorced; and children with a divorced parent are themselves more likely, one day, to get divorced. Other risk factors for divorce include: young age; poor educational attainment; having known each other for a short time before marriage; coming from very different backgrounds; financial difficulties; sexual promiscuity; difference in sex drives or other sexual incompatibility; difference in desire to have children; parenting; addiction.

5. People are living longer. If you live longer, you have longer to fall out, and longer to put up with. So divorce is doing death’s job.

The Fall

Between 1993 and 2013, the number of divorces per thousand married women in England and Wales fell back from 14.1 to 9.8. In 2013, there were 114,720 divorces and 240,854 marriages in England and Wales. In the US, the divorce rate fell to 16.9 per thousand in 2015, representing a fall of 25% since 1980.

It is not entirely clear why the divorce rate is falling, but here are five possible explanations:

1. People are waiting longer to get married. Between 1974 and 2014, the average age of marriage in England and Wales rose from 28.8 to 37.0 for men and 26.2 to 34.6 for women.

2. People are waiting longer to have children. They are also having fewer children, reducing the pressure on their marriage. From 1970 to 2014, the fertility rate fell from 2.44 to 1.83 in the UK, and from 2.48 to 1.86 in the US.

3. Fewer people are getting married. Singlehood is more socially acceptable, and marriage more of a lifestyle choice. The share of children born outside of marriage increased in the EU-28 from 27.3% in 2000 to 42.0% in 2014. In 2015, extramarital births outnumbered births inside marriages in several EU countries, including France, Sweden, and Portugal. People who choose marriage are probably better suited to it, and to their partner.

4. Marriage is becoming a middle class institution. Analysis of Census 2011 data by the Marriage Foundation uncovered that 79% of all parents in social class AB are married, compared to just 37% of parents in social class DE. People who are skilled, affluent, and from similar backgrounds are less likely to get divorced.

5. Cohabiting is more socially acceptable. Couples who are still unsure about each other are under less pressure to get married, weeding out weaker marriages.

Can you think of any other reasons for the rise and fall of divorce? Feel free to comment and join the discussion.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, and other books.

Find Neel on Twitter and Facebook.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s