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July 3, 2008 / C H Thompson


The previous lessons highlighted the ‘pressure’ on marriage as an institution as more people choose to live on their own (singlehood) or to cohabit.

However divorce also adds additional pressures on marriage. But at the same time marriages it’s important to recognise marriages do ‘end’ in Divorce 2other ways without any legal divorce proceedings occurring:

  • Separation – where couples effectively end their marriage, but remain legally together and still live under the same roof
  • Empty-shell marriage – where a couple remains legally married but love, sex and companionship are in the past
  • Confluent love – reasons for highest divorce rates among couples in their 20s

Notwithstanding these ‘quiet’ annulments to marriage, divorce is the more common expression of marriage annulment which is best displayed in the following divorce data infographics.

Until the second half of the 20th century divorce was a relatively rare event. In 1901 there were 512 divorces in England and Wales. In 2001 there were 141,135 divorces while in 2013 42% of all marriages ended in divorce (ONS).

The Office for National Statistics summerised the following facts on UK divorce rates:divorce

  • 34% of marriages are expected to end in divorce by the 20th wedding anniversary.
  • an additional 6% of marriages are expected to end by the 20th wedding anniversary because one of the spouses has died
  • therefore 60% of marriages are expected to survive to the 20th anniversary
  • 16% of marriages reach the 60th wedding anniversary
  • the average marriage is expected to last for 32 years

The dynamics within these divorce figures have been analysed to examine the proportion of marriages ending in divorce as well as the age differences on marriage and divorce.

The reasons for the increasing trend towards divorce is varied, however the following reasons provide a broad overview:

  • Law – until relatively recently obtaining a divorce was exclusive to rich men and it wasn’t until legal aid was introduced in 1949 that divorce was available to the less well-off. But it wasn’t until the 1969 Divorce Reform
    Act that the removal of guilt was removed from legal proceedings and the concept of the ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ was introduced. When this act came into power in 1971 divorce rates soared even though applicants had to wait 3 years before they could petition for divorce. This was finally reduced to 1 year in The Matrimonial Family Proceedings Act of 1984
  • Economics – economic growth meant more people were needed to enter the labour market and therefore women were increasingly able to find positions of employment in a variety of occupations. This changing role of women was aided by Equal Opportunities legislation in the 1970s women were remunerated better. This meant women were able to file for divorce in the knowledge they could support themselves. Something they wouldn’t have been able to do in the past
  • Changing perceptions of love – Fletcher argues that the reason for increasing divorce rates is due to people valuing marriage even more and are seeking an ideal marriage. There could be some truth in this as the institution of marriage hasn’t been rejected. Giddens’ developed Fletcher’s theme with his concept of ‘confluent love’
  • who divorcesChanging social values – divorce has increasingly become socially acceptable. As the stigma of divorce has diminished, couples are less likely to remain together in order to keep up appearances. In effect divorce has moved from being abnormal to something normal
  • New economic status for women -an expanding economy (see above) resulted in more women entering the labour market and have relatively received better pay and conditions. All this is now included in divorce settlements which has left women very well-off. Though it is worth noting only the very well off tend to benefit from such settlements, working-class women tend to be financially worse off after divorce settlements
  • Individualisation – According to Ulrich Beck, contemporary society values individual freedom to the extent social norms are placed second to the needs of individual fulfilment. What this means is a higher value is placed on individual expression, self-fulfilment and independence. How might people express this after several years of marriage? 
  • Feminism – many people argue the feminist movement encouraged much of the above points. The 1960/70s feminist movement did paveconsequences of divorce the way for equal opportunities at work, in education, in rights etc. What is interesting though is how more women petition for divorce then men. Many feminists say it’s marriage itself which is at fault. Traditional marriage encourages patriarchy – male dominance, unequal division of labour with women being largely responsible for the housework, childcare even when working full-time!
  • The real consequences of divorce are evident in this article

Return to family overview




Leave a Comment
  1. no win no fee 3 / Jan 11 2015 5:43 pm

    Please give me the link to your book,so i can read it online,Thankyou

    • tommo / Jan 12 2015 2:47 pm

      Hi – which book are you referring to?


  1. Singlehood and cohabitation « Sociology at Twynham School

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