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Divorce statistics for England and Wales: small rise in couples divorcing amid general decline

Last updated on May 20th, 2021 at 08:48 pm

Recent figures showing a year-on-year rise in the number of divorces in England and Wales between 2015 and 2016 actually obscure a wider narrative about divorce in this country; namely, that the increasing divorce trend seen since the 1960s seems to have been in decline over the last decade.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows there was a 5.8% rise in divorces between opposite-sex couples in 2016 (the most current year for which we have data) compared with 2015.

This works out at a total of 106,959 divorces in 2016. In fact, estimates suggest that 42% of marriages will ultimately end in divorce. This is a rise from the 22% seen in the 1970.

Yet we are starting to see a slight shift from this trajectory. While it is difficult to produce the current figures on the proportion of marriages ending in divorce, due to the fact that marriages are ongoing, when we look at relationships in terms of specific anniversaries, we see that a higher percentage are now lasting at least until these landmark dates have been reached.

Percentage of marriages which have ended in divorce, by year of marriage in England and Wales (2011)

Year of marriage

By anniversary (years)

0

 

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

 

1970 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.2 2.1 4.5 6.8 8.9 10.9 12.8 14.6
1975 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.4 3.6 7.0 9.8 12.2 14.5 16.4 18.1
1980 0.0 0.0 0.2 0.5 4.7 8.5 11.5 14.1 16.5 18.7 20.7
1985 0.0 0.0 1.6 4.3 7.3 10.2 13.0 15.7 18.3 20.7 22.8
1990 0.0 0.0 1.5 4.3 7.6 10.9 14.0 16.8 19.3 21.5 23.6
1995 0.0 0.0 1.6 4.5 7.7 10.8 13.9 16.8 19.7 22.4 24.7
2000 0.0 0.0 1.3 4.0 7.2 10.4 13.3 16.1 18.5 20.7 22.8
2005 0.0 0.0 1.1 3.1 5.5 8.3 11.1        

In fact, if we look to the table below on divorce rates (number of divorces per 1,000 married men and women for a given year) in England and Wales we will notice a steady increase from 1950 through to the mid-1980s, when the rate held reasonably steady for almost 20 years, reaching its highest peak in 1994.

But by 2005, the figure begins to fall, standing at 9.8 divorces per 1,000 married men and women in 2013, a 31% drop from the 14.2 figure seen in 1994.

Divorce Rates (persons divorcing per 1,000 married male/female population aged 16 and over*)

1950 2.8 1959 2.1 1968 3.7 1977 10.4 1986 12.9 1995 13.7 2004 13.3 2013 9.8
1951 2.6 1960 2 1969 4.1 1978 11.6 1987 12.7 1996 13.6 2005 12.2
1952 3 1961 2.1 1970 4.7 1979 11.2 1988 12.8 1997 13 2006 11.5
1953 2.7 1962 2.4 1971 5.9 1980 12 1989 12.7 1998 12.9 2007 11.1
1954 2.5 1963 2.7 1972 9.5 1981 11.9 1990 13 1999 12.9 2008 10.5
1955 2.4 1964 2.9 1973 8.4 1982 12.1 1991 13.5 2000 12.7 2009 9.8
1956 2.3 1965 3.1 1974 9 1983 12.2 1992 13.9 2001 12.9 2010 10.2
1957 2.1 1966 3.2 1975 9.6 1984 12 1993 13.8 2002 12.8 2011 10.1
1958 1.9 1967 3.5 1976 10.1 1985 13.4 1994 14.2 2003 13.3 2012 10

* latest data available, released 2016

Head of family solicitors at Graysons, Bradie Pell, said: “It is likely that the trend in divorce represents the social trends of the time. In the 1950s the social culture began to shift and divorce was not so much of a “taboo”. This again continued in the 1980s and 1990s.  It is interesting that the percentage then falls — this could reflect a decrease in the amount of couples choosing to marry.”

Why are divorce rates falling?

The total number of divorces in England and Wales has actually been dropping for the past 30 years (see below); however, this figure is a misleading one.

ONS data on the number of marriages since the 1960s shows that the figure has also dropped. It is logical to presume that fewer marriages will naturally result in fewer divorces.

But why has marriage declined and does this have anything to tell us about the drop in divorce that has seemingly occurred?

A fundamental shift in the way divorce is perceived both by the law and within wider society is thought to have had a direct impact on divorce rates in the UK.

Over the last 50 years, changes in attitudes and behaviours have impacted on marriage statistics, both in terms of numbers and the age at which people first wed. This, in turn, has affected divorce rates in the UK.

  • Over the decades it has become increasingly acceptable to live together without being married. Most people (60%) nowadays have a period of cohabitation before they become married.
  • Role of women. Women’s lives began to change in the first half of the 20th century following important gains won by the suffragette movement and later the impact of the Second World War. However, it was the latter half of the century when the careers and prospects of women in the UK dramatically altered, with more women now choosing to concentrate on further education and building careers for themselves.
  • Age when first married. People are increasingly leaving it longer to get married. Data suggests that those who marry at a later age tend to divorce less.
  • Changing expectations around marriage. Rising expectations about how a marriage ‘should be’ has led to an increase in relationship breakdowns, with many spouses no longer willing to stay in an unhappy relationship.
  • People’s acceptance of divorce and the introduction of fixed fees has made divorce more accessible and affordable.

Age when divorced

The recent ONS figures show the age that people get divorced continues to increase. Over the last 2 decades the average age has risen 8 years for both men and women.

If we look at the most common age at which men and women divorce, we see that for men the figure is between 45 and 49, while for women it is 30 to 39.

The age difference is most likely down to the fact that women tend to marry at a younger age, and to men older than themselves.

Those who stick it out stay together

Interestingly, figures suggest that if you can make it past the first 10 years of marriage, your chances of getting divorced decreases.

Looking at the graph above, we see that at the beginning of the curve, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce increases as the length of relationship increases — as one would expect. However, by the 10-year mark, the increase in divorces among all married people starts to slow, indicating that fewer people decide to divorce when they have been married for a length of time.

By the time married couples reach their 20th wedding anniversary, the increase sees a rapid slowdown.

But it’s not just length of marriage that can affect the probability of divorce; research also shows that people who have divorced once before are more likely to do so again.

Reasons for divorce

Since 1974 when the current rules on divorce came into effect, to get divorced in England and Wales couples have had to prove that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. To establish this, you must note on the divorce petition one of the following five reasons:

  • adultery
  • unreasonable behaviour
  • desertion
  • 2 years separation with consent
  • 5 years separation (no consent required)

The most recent data shows the most common reason for divorce to be ‘unreasonable behaviour’.  This has been the most common reason given by women since 1974. However, the most common reason for men has changed over the years, with ‘adultery’ cited more often across the 1980s, and ‘separation’ given in the first half-decade of the new millennium.

Year of divorce Party to whom granted Adultery, % Behaviour, % Desertion, % Separation (2 years and consent), % Separation (5 years), % Year of divorce Party to whom granted Adultery, % Behaviour, % Desertion, % Separation (2 years and consent), % Separation (5 years), %
1974 Wife 25 33 6 23 11 1994 Wife 22 54 1 19 5
1974 Husband 39 6 5 28 21 1994 Husband 37 24 1 28 10
1975 Wife 25 35 5 24 9 1995 Wife 22 52 1 20 5
1975 Husband 41 6 4 31 18 1995 Husband 36 24 1 29 10
1976 Wife 24 38 5 23 8 1996 Wife 22 53 1 20 5
1976 Husband 40 7 3 32 17 1996 Husband 34 24 1 30 11
1977 Wife 24 39 4 23 8 1997 Wife 22 53 1 19 5
1977 Husband 40 8 3 32 17 1997 Husband 34 26 1 30 10
1978 Wife 23 41 4 24 8 1998 Wife 22 53 0 19 5
1978 Husband 40 9 3 32 15 1998 Husband 32 27 1 30 10
1979 Wife 24 41 3 24 7 1999 Wife 22 53 0 20 5
1979 Husband 41 9 3 33 14 1999 Husband 30 27 1 31 11
1980 Wife 25 42 3 23 6 2000 Wife 22 52 0 20 6
1980 Husband 42 10 2 32 13 2000 Husband 29 28 1 31 12
1981 Wife 25 44 2 23 6 2001 Wife 21 53 0 20 6
1981 Husband 43 10 2 32 12 2001 Husband 27 29 1 31 12
1982 Wife 24 46 2 22 5 2002 Wife 20 52 0 21 6
1982 Husband 44 12 2 31 12 2002 Husband 27 29 1 31 12
1983 Wife 24 47 2 22 5 2003 Wife 20 52 0 21 7
1983 Husband 44 13 2 30 12 2003 Husband 26 30 1 31 13
1984 Wife 25 46 1 22 5 2004 Wife 19 52 0 21 7
1984 Husband 43 14 1 30 12 2004 Husband 25 30 0 32 13
1985 Wife 24 50 1 20 4 2005 Wife 19 53 0 21 7
1985 Husband 44 16 1 28 10 2005 Husband 23 31 1 32 14
1986 Wife 25 51 1 19 4 2006 Wife 18 54 0 20 7
1986 Husband 44 17 1 27 11 2006 Husband 21 32 1 32 14
1987 Wife 25 52 1 18 4 2007 Wife 17 54 0 21 8
1987 Husband 45 18 1 25 10 2007 Husband 20 33 0 33 14
1988 Wife 25 53 1 17 5 2008 Wife 17 54 0 21 8
1988 Husband 44 20 1 25 10 2008 Husband 18 34 1 32 14
1989 Wife 24 54 1 17 4 2009 Wife 16 54 0 22 8
1989 Husband 43 21 1 25 10 2009 Husband 17 35 1 33 14
1990 Wife 24 55 1 16 4 2010 Wife 15 55 0 21 8
1990 Husband 42 22 1 25 10 2010 Husband 16 36 1 32 15
1991 Wife 23 56 1 16 4 2011 Wife 15 54 0 22 9
1991 Husband 42 23 1 25 10 2011 Husband 15 36 1 32 16
1992 Wife 23 55 1 17 4 2012 Wife 14 54 1 22 9
1992 Husband 41 23 1 26 10 2012 Husband 14 37 1 32 17
1993 Wife 23 54 1 18 4
1993 Husband 39 23 1 28 10

Bradie Pell said: “The trend in divorce has changed over the decades; principally due to the change is social culture. It will be interesting to see if the Government does eventually adopt a “none fault divorce” and how this will affect the statistics — will it encourage people to divorce or, will the stats stabilise.”

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