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

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 law 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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You can read more about the merger here. Graysons will be pleased to help with your enquiry. Please visit our web pages or contact us directly on 0114 358 9009

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