Source: Pixabay

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. But between 1993 and 2013, it fell back to 9.8. 

In 1993, there were 165,018 divorces and 299,197 marriages in England and Wales. In 2013, there were 114,720 divorces and 240,854 marriages.

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 in 1980. It subsequently fell back to 16.9 per thousand in 2015, a fall of 25 percent since 1980.

Here are seven explanations for the overall increase in the divorce rate:

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.

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 support themselves, they can claim welfare. All this means that they are in a much better bargaining position. In the UK, wives petition about two-thirds of divorces, and generally get a better settlement.

3. Divorce is more socially acceptable. 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.

4. Divorce breeds divorce. 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 more likely, one day, to get divorced. Other risk factors for divorce include: coming from very different backgrounds; knowing each other for a short time before marriage; young age; poor educational attainment; financial strain; addiction to alcohol or drugs; sexual promiscuity; difference in sex drives or other sexual incompatibility; difference in desire to have children; and parenting.

5. People are living longer. Between 1970 and 2014, life expectancy in the UK rose from 72.0 years to 81.1 years, which is more or less double the life expectancy in 1841. It has become much harder to wait for death to do the job of divorce.

6. People have unrealistically high expectations of marriage. In the past, most people married for pragmatic reasons, or because they had no choice. Today, they marry for love, and expect to have all their needs fulfilled by their partner. But people are flawed and fallible, and love comes and goes.

7. We live in a consumerist culture. Our society is more individualistic and materialistic than ever before. We tend to focus on what we lack, rather than being grateful for what we already have (which is more than ever before). When something is broken, we don't bother to repair it: we just throw it out and replace it with a better model.

Here are five explanations for the subsequent fall in the divorce rate:

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. Young age is a risk factor for divorce.

2. People are waiting longer to have children, and having fewer of them. In England and Wales, the average age of mothers at the birth of their child rose from 26.7 to 30.2 years between 1970 and 2015. In the same period, the fertility rate fell from 2.44 to 1.83 in the UK, and from 2.48 to 1.86 in the US. Fewer children later puts less strain on a marriage.

3. Fewer people are getting married. Singlehood and cohabitation are more socially acceptable, while marriage has become something of a lifestyle choice. Many jurisdictions offer alternative forms of civil union, such as the Civil Solidarity Pact (PACS) in France. The share of children born outside of marriage increased in the EU-28 from 27.3 percent in 2000 to 42.0 percent in 2014. In 2015, extramarital births outnumbered births inside marriages in several EU countries, including France, Sweden, and Portugal. People who choose marriage over its alternatives 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 percent of all parents in social class AB are married, compared to just 37 percent of parents in social class DE. People who are skilled, affluent, and from similar backgrounds are less likely to get divorced.

5. People are lonelier than ever before. A US study found that, between 1985 and 2004, the proportion of people reporting having no one to confide in almost tripled. In 1985, respondents most frequently reported having three close confidants; by 2004, this had fallen to none. These stark findings may be explained by such factors as smaller household sizes, longer life expectancy, greater migration, and higher media consumption. 


The fall in the divorce rate may seem like a positive. But in reality, divorce is falling because marriage is dying—or, at least, dying as a universal institution.

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.

Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

You are reading

Hide and Seek

The History of the White Wedding

How weddings became so formal, and so lavish.

Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Bible

Many traditional attitudes have come down from the Bible. What is their basis?

A Feminist Critique of Marriage

At a time of unparalleled social freedom, can we imagine a better way of living?