Last Updated on September 28, 2023 by Karl Thompson
There has been a long term increase in divorce in England and Wales since the 1950s, despite a more recent decline.
The Divorce rate was 2.5 per 1000 marriages in the 1950s, gradually increased to 4 per thousand through the 1960s and then rapidly increased to 10 per thousand by the mid 1970s.
The Divorce rate then carried on rising steadily to reach a peak of 14 per thousand by the mid 1990s, and then started to decline slowly to its current level of 7.5 divorces per thousand marriages.
This post looks at the reasons for the long term increase from the 1960s to the 1990s especially. NB despite the recent decline we still have a divorce rate today that is three times greater than it was in the 1960s, so there has still been a long term increase in the divorce rate overall.
Why has there been a long-term increase in divorce?
There are four main factors which can explain the long term increase in divorce since the 1960s:
- Social policy changes, mainly the Divorce Act of 1969.
- Economic factors such as the rising cost of living.
- Changing gender roles such as more women going in paid-work
- Postmodernsisation which has meant the decline of religion and more freedom of choice.
This post examines these factors and others.
Social Policy Changes
The Divorce Act of 1969 explains the rapid increase in divorce during the early 1970s.
Prior to the Divorce Act it had been difficult to get a divorce because one person had to be at fault and accept blame for the marriage breaking down, through for example having had an affair.
The 1969 the Divorce Act extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’, meaning that two people could simply agree that the marriage wasn’t working for them because they had just fallen out of love and that it was no one persons fault.
The Act was passed by parliament in 1969 and came law in 1971. Married couples could get divorced after two years if both agreed and after five years if only one person wanted a divorce.
However, this cannot explain all the increase because the divorce rate was rising before the act, and continued to rise for many years after its immediate impact in the very early 1970s.
It seems fair to say there were deeper, underlying social factors which created the conditions for higher divorce and the policy change reflected these changes.
Increasing inequality in the UK has meant that the lower social classes now get paid less compared to rising living costs (mortgages/ bills). This means that both partners in a marriage now need to do paid work to get by, which puts a strain on the marriage which leads to higher numbers getting divorced.
A positive evaluation of this is that divorce rates are higher amongst poorer families.
A negative evaluation is that there isn’t a perfect correlation between increasing costs of living and the divorce rate: the divorce rate has been going down since 2010 when costs of living have been increasing.
Feminism/ changing gender roles
The changing position of women in society. Is crucial to understanding the increase in divorce rates.
The proportion of women staying on in higher education and entering paid work, especially professional occupations, steadily increased during the 1970s and especially the 1980s and early 1990s.
The proportion of women in some kind of paid work is now 70%, whereas in the 1950s it was less than 50%.
This means the ‘normal’ type of household is a dual-earner household in which both men and women are doing paid-work, which means men and women are on a more equal footing in their domestic relationship with women no longer being financially dependent on a male breadwinner.
Financial independence makes getting a divorce easier, and 70% of divorces are filed by women so this certainly explains some of the increase.
It also means that women spend longer building their careers before they have children, and so there are more childless married couples in their mid to late 30s, which makes getting a divorce much easier.
Anthony Giddens argues that two things lie behind the above changes to gender roles:
- the impact of the Feminist movement, which has campaigned for equality of opportunity for women in society.
- advances in contraception which allow women to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
Feminists however, point out that the advances of women can be exaggerated – women still earn less than men, and traditional gender norms remain in many families.
Both religion and traditional values have declined in Britain. As a result there is no longer a set of social values which force people into staying married, there is less social stigma attached to getting a divorce and so people are freer to choose to get divorced. This change reflects the declining importance of social structure and the rise of consumer culture – the idea that individuals can choose their own lifestyles.
Giddens (1992) believes that the nature of marriage has changed because the nature of intimate relationships more generally have changed:
- In the early period of modernity in the late 18th century, marriage became more than an economic arrangement as the idea of romantic love developed. The marriage partner was idealised as someone who would perfect a person’s life. Women kept their virginity waiting for the perfect partner.
- In the era of what Giddens calls ‘late modernity’, plastic sexuality has developed. This means that sex can be for pleasure rather than conceiving children with your perfect marriage partner. Relationships and marriages are no longer seen as necessarily being permanent.
- Marriage is now based on confluent love – Love that is dependent upon partners benefitting from the relationship. If they are not fulfilled in their relationship, couples no longer stay together out of a sense of duty, so divorce and relationship breakdown become more common.
Ulrich Beck points out that divorce has increased because individualisation. This involves:
- More opportunities for individuals, especially women, and the opportunity for individuals to take more decisions about every aspect of their lives.
- Increased conflict emerging from increased choice and uncertainty which leads to chaotic relationships and helps explain the higher divorce rate.
There are a number of reasons linked to the Functional Fit Theory which could explain the increase in divorce:
- Functionalists such as Goode (1971) believe that conflict has increased because the family has become more isolated from other kin, placing an increased burden on husbands and wives who have little support from other relatives.
- Dennis (1975) believes that because the family performs fewer functions the bonds between husband and wife are weaker.
- Allan and Crowe (2001) point out that because the family is no longer an economic unit, this makes it easier for families to break up.
The New Right
The New Right would claim that increasingly generous welfare benefits for single mothers is a crucial factor which allows women to divorce if they deem it necessary.
If divorce occurs within a family, the child will go with the mother in 90% of cases making it difficult to find full time work: and hence benefits may be a necessary link in the chain of explaining the increase in divorce.
The New Right would also see the increasing divorce rate as a sign of wider moral decline.
Signposting and related posts
This is one of the main topics within the families and households module commonly taught in the first year of A-level sociology.
For the next related post on explaining the recent decrease in the divorce rate.