What are we to make of the falling divorce rate?

Divorce|December 7th 2016

On Monday the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest statistical bulletin for divorces in England and Wales, for the year 2014. Amongst the ONS’s main findings was that the number of people divorcing in England and Wales decreased by 3.1 per cent in that year, continuing the downward trend in the number of divorces that has been happening pretty well consistently since 2003. Further, the divorce rate, i.e. the number of divorces per 1,000 married men and women, also decreased for both men and women compared with 2013, continuing a fairly consistent downward trend since 2004. Divorce rates are useful as they take account of changes in the size of the married adult population, which affects the number of divorces.

OK, so apart from the fact that some divorce lawyers may have to branch out into other fields of work, what are we to make of this trend? What is causing it? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? And what are its implications? As we will see in a moment, Marilyn Stowe has already written here of her views on the statistics, but I thought I would give my views also (besides which, I had almost finished this post before I saw Marilyn’s post!)

The ONS propose some reasons for the falling divorce rate. Nicola Haines, of the Vital Statistics Outputs Branch at the ONS is quoted in the bulletin as saying:

“Compared with 2004, divorce rates in 2014 were lower for all age groups except women aged 55 and over. Likely factors include increased cohabiting and increasing age at first marriage. Previous research indicates a higher risk of divorce among those marrying at younger ages, whilst cohabitation may be reducing the number of weaker relationships progressing to marriage.”

In other words, marrying later in life and ‘testing out’ relationships by cohabiting before marriage are having the effect of ‘rooting out’ more marriages that are likely to fail. I’m not sure that either of these things represent a ringing endorsement for the institution of marriage, but we’ll leave that to one side.

The ONS also puts forward another, perhaps more compelling, reason for the decrease in divorces since 2003: the decrease in the number of people getting married, something which has been happening fairly consistently since about 1989. It must surely be unarguable that fewer marriages must equal fewer divorces, with there being a ‘delay’ of a few years before the drop in the number of marriages being reflected in a drop in the number of divorces: the ONS tells us in the bulletin that marriages that end in divorce last about eleven years, which is not far off the delay between the drop in the number of marriages and the drop in number of divorces.

A fall in the divorce rate is likely to be viewed as a good thing, at least by those who consider marriage to be a good thing. But this of course depends upon the reasons behind the fall. For example Marilyn Stowe has suggested that the fall may be due to the lack of legal aid, with people preferring to endure unhappy marriages, or simply to remain married but apart, rather than embark upon divorce without legal assistance. Legal aid to deal with most private law family matters was abolished in April 2013 so this obviously cannot explain the continuing trend, but it may explain why the divorce rate has dropped more steeply since 2013. Marilyn also suggests that cut-backs to legal aid prior to 2013 may have affected the divorce rate figures before then. If it is the case that lack of legal aid is a reason behind it then a falling divorce rate may actually be a bad thing, meaning people are unable to leave unhappy marriages and move on with their lives.

So what are the implications of the falling divorce rate? Well, it would appear on the face of it that marriages are generally being more ‘successful’, although as the ONS points out, changes in attitudes to cohabitation as an alternative to marriage or prior to marriage, particularly at younger ages, are likely to have been a factor affecting the decrease in divorce rates since 2003 – levels of cohabitation increased over that period, while the married population declined. I’m not sure therefore whether it is correct at all to imply from the statistics that marriages are becoming more successful at all.

An obvious implication of fewer divorces is that this will reduce the pressure on the courts that have to deal with divorce and its implications. In this time of inundated courts and few resources that must be welcome, although I doubt that many courts have noticed any great change since 2003. Further, of course, the increase in the level of cohabitation will inevitably mean that there will be more cohabitation-related cases going before the courts. The number of marriage breakdowns may be fewer, but the number of relationship breakdowns will remain the same, or perhaps even increase, if it is true that cohabitation is a ‘less stable’ form of relationship than marriage.

As mentioned in the quote above, there is one, admittedly quite small, group for which the divorce rate has actually increased: women in the age 55 to 59 bracket. Could this be to do with the rise of the ‘silver divorce’, where women are less fearful of divorcing at a later age, due to greater financial independence and there no longer being a stigma associated with divorce? Personally, I would have thought that this was a good thing, but I know that others may beg to differ.

Drawing all of this together though, I generally agree with Marilyn: there may be some who find the figures pleasing, but they are not necessarily a cause for celebration.

The ONS statistical bulletin can be read here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. Guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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