The Rise and Fall of Divorce

Why did divorce rise, and why is it now falling?

Posted Jun 10, 2017

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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 2014, it fell back to 9.3.

In 1993, there were 165,018 divorces and 299,197 marriages in England and Wales; in 2014 there were 111,169 divorces and 247,372 marriages.

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 16.9 per thousand in 2015, a fall of 25 per cent since 1980.

These are seven reasons for the overall 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 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 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. 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 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. 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 it to last. 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 appreciating 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.

These are five reasons for the more recent fall in the divorce rate:

1. People are waiting longer to get married. 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 30.3 years between 1970 and 2015. In the same period, the fertility rate fell from 2.44 to 1.83 in the U.K., and from 2.48 to 1.86 in the U.S. 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. The share of children born outside of marriage increased in the EU-28 from 27.3 per cent in 2000 to 42.0 per cent in 2015. In 2015, 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. Analysis of Census 2011 data by the Marriage Foundation uncovered that 79 per cent of all parents in social class AB are married, compared to just 37 per cent of parents in social class DE. 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 having three close confidants; by 2004, this had fallen to none. People who have no one to fall back upon may be less likely to leave their marriage.

In conclusion, the fall in the divorce rate may seem like a very good thing—and in some respects of course it is. 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: Should I Get Married?Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, and other books.

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Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton


Office for National Statistics: Divorces in England and Wales: 2015. 

National Center for Family and Marriage Research: Divorce rate in the U.S.: Geographic variation, 2015.

Bible, Matthew 5:32 (KJV). Echoed in Mark and Luke.

Office for National Statistics: Marriages in England and Wales: 2014.

Office for National Statistics: Births in England and Wales: 2015.

Eurostat: Marriage and divorce statistics. Data extracted in June 2017.

Benson H for the Marriage Foundation: Keeping up with the neighbours. The influence of local wealth and faith on marriage. May 2017.

McPherson M et al. (2006): Social isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over two decades. Sociological Review 71:353-375.