The Rise and Fall of Divorce
Why did divorce rise, and why is it now falling?
Posted June 10, 2017
[Article revised on 31 March 2020.]
According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the divorce rate in the U.S. rose from 14.9 per thousand married women in 1970 to a peak of 22.8 in 1980. It subsequently fell back to 15.7 per thousand in 2018, a fall of over 30 per cent since 1980.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the divorce rate in England and Wales rose from 4.7 per thousand married men and women in 1970 to a peak of 14.1 in 1993. It subsequently fell back to 8.4 per thousand in 2018, a fall of over 40 per cent since 1993.
This sounds like good news for marriage, but before we jump to conclusions, let’s look into the reasons for the rise and then fall in the divorce rate.
Here are seven reasons for the initial increase in the divorce rate:
1. Divorce is easier to obtain. Henry VIII of England had to break from the Catholic Church to do away with Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. In the U.K., 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 recently 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 U.S. 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. Those who aren’t are able to claim welfare. All this means that women are in a much better bargaining position. In the U.K., wives petition about two-thirds of divorces, and generally obtain the better settlement.
3. Divorce is more socially acceptable. With the increasing secularization of society, marriage is seen more as a social contract than a sacrament. In the past, couples often stayed together for the sake of the children; but today, many 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; misaligned sex drives or other sexual incompatibility; and disagreement about whether or not to have children.
5. People are living longer. Between 1970 and 2015, life expectancy in the U.K. rose from 72.0 to 81.6 years, which is about double the life expectancy in 1841. As a result, 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 most people marry for romantic love, and expect forevermore to remain romantically fulfilled. 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. As a result, we tend to focus on what we lack, rather than on all that we already have. When something is broken, we don’t bother to repair it: we just throw it out and replace it with a newer model.
And here are five reasons for the subsequent decline in the divorce rate:
1. People are waiting longer to get married. People are waiting longer to get married. Between 1974 and 2016, the average age of marriage in England and Wales rose from 28.8 to 37.9 for men and 26.2 to 35.5 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 30.5 years between 1970 and 2017. In the same period, the fertility rate fell from 2.44 to 1.76 in the U.K., and from 2.48 to 1.76 in the U.S. Compared to more children earlier, fewer children later puts less strain on a marriage.
3. Fewer people are getting married. Cohabitation and singledom 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 or Civil Union in New Zealand. In the E.U., the share of children born outside of marriage rose from 27.3 per cent in 2000 to 43.0 per cent in 2016. In 2016, extramarital births outnumbered births inside marriages in several E.U. 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. A 2017 research brief looking at Americans aged 18 to 55 found that 56 per cent of the middle- and upper-class are married, compared to just 39 per cent of the working-class and 26 per cent of the poor. People who are skilled, affluent, and from similar backgrounds are less likely to get divorced.
5. People are more isolated than ever before. A U.S. 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. People who have no social network to fall back upon may be less likely to leave their marriage.
In conclusion, the fall in the divorce rate may seem like good news for marriage. But in reality, divorce is falling because marriage is dying—or, at least, dying as a universal institution.
Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and other books.
National Center for Family and Marriage Research: Divorce rate in the U.S.: Geographic variation, 2018.
Office for National Statistics: Divorces in England and Wales: 2018.
Office for National Statistics: Marriages in England and Wales: 2016.
Office for National Statistics: Births in England and Wales: 2017.
Eurostat: Marriage and divorce statistics. Data extracted in March 2020.
Wilcox, W. Bradford, Wang, W., The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working-Class Families Are More Fragile Today, American Enterprise Institute (Sep. 25, 2017).
McPherson M et al. (2006): Social isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over two decades. Sociological Review 71:353-375.