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Why is the divorce rate increasing?

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Changes in divorce law have generally made it easier and cheaper to end marriages, but this is not necessarily the cause of the rising divorce rate. Legal changes reflect other changes in society, especially changes in attitudes. In particular, sociologists argue that social expectations about marriage have changed. Functionalist sociologists even argue that high divorce rates are evidence that marriage is increasing), valued and that people are demanding higher standards from their partners. Couples are no longer prepared to put up with unhappy, `empty-shell’ marriages. People want emotional and sexual compatibility and equality, as well as companionship. Some are willing to go through a number of partners to achieve these goals.

Feminists note that women’s expectations of marriage have radically changed, compared with previous generations. In the 1990s most divorce petitions were initiated by women. This may support the view that women expect far more from marriage than men, and in particular that they value friendship and emotional gratification more than men do. If husbands fail to live up to these expectations, women may feel the need to look elsewhere.

Women’s expectations have probably changed as a result of the improved educational and career opportunities they have experienced since the 1980s. Women no longer have to be unhappily married because they are financially dependent upon their husbands. Moreover, divorce may be a reaction to the frustration that many working wives may feel if they are responsible for the bulk of housework and childcare.

Divorce is no longer associated with stigma and shame. This may be partly due to a general decline in religious practices. The social controls, such as extended families and close-knit communities, that exerted pressure on couples to stay together, and which labelled divorce as ‘wicked’ and `shameful, are in decline. Consequently, in a society dominated by privatised nuclear families, the view that divorce can lead to greater happiness for the individual is more acceptable. It is even more so if divorce involves escaping from an abusive relationship, or if an unhappy marriage is causing emotional damage to children. However, it is important to recognise that such attitudes are not necessarily a sign of a casual attitude towards divorce. Most people experience divorce as an emotional and traumatic experience, equivalent to bereavement.

Divorce trends suggest that monogamy (one partner for life) will eventually be replaced by serial monogamy (a series of long-term relationships resulting in cohabitation and/or marriage). However, the New Right panic about divorce is probably exaggerated. Four out of ten marriages may end in divorce, but six out of ten succeed. Over 75 per cent of children are living with both natural parents who are legally married. These figures suggest that society still places a high value on marriage and the family.


Bottomley, Gay. (1988) “What is going on to Family Law? A Feminist Critique of Conciliation.” In Women in Law: Explorations in Family and Sexuality,London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

McGlone, F., Park, A. and Smith, K. (1998) Families and Kinship, London: Family Policy Studies Centre.

Legal & General Survey (2000) ‘The value of a mum’.

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