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Historically, the study of divorce rates at A-level has generally been considered in the context of the “decline of the western family” thesis. This, in very broad terms, argues that rising levels of divorce and cohabitation, coupled with falling rates of marriage, add-up to a “crisis of convergence” in family life: one where falling marriage and rising divorce gradually come together to the point where we witness, according to some New Right politicians and theorists, the “death of the conventional (nuclear) family” – the significance of which, among many other things, is the creation of a wide range of “social problems” – from educational underachievement to crime.

This general thesis, particularly in the last 30 or so years of the 20th century, gained a certain amount of political and sociological traction based on three observable measures:

1. Declining Marriage: From a post-2nd World War peek of around 425,000 in 1972 the number of marriages in England and Wales fell to around 240,000 in 2019. Although we can add Civil Partnerships to the list, the actual number of these (around 1,000 in 2019) is currently statistically negligible.

2. Increasing Cohabitation: Around 17% or 3 million families in England and Wales now involve cohabiting couples, living either as an alternative or prelude to marriage.

3. Increasing Divorce: The post-war period witnessed a huge rise in divorce, from around 15,00 in 1945 to around 150,000 at the start of the 21st century.

While, as with the case of marriage, there are some anomalies in the general divorce trend caused by changes in the birth rate – such as the mid-1950’s baby boom that significantly increased the population available for marriage (and divorce) – the direction of change was generally and persistently upward.

At the start of the new millennium, however, something changed.

In or around 2002/3 the numbers divorcing in England and Wales “peaked” and then began to fall. While marriage rates continued their long, slow and apparently inexorable decline, the numbers divorcing started to fall quite rapidly and significantly.

And this happened not just in England and Wales but also across Western Europe.

And North America.

Divorce, it seemed was going out of fashion in Western societies.

The question is why?

Explaining Declining Divorce

To answer this question we can look at a range of competing – and in some cases complementary – explanations for the decline in divorce among, it needs to be noted, first marriages.

1. Cohabitation and Commitment: The 10-Year Hitch?

This explanation focuses on the different effects of cohabitation for men and women, particularly in the early years of a marriage following cohabitation. It reflects a broadly New Right attempt to breathe new life to the “family crisis” thesis in the face of apparently contradictory evidence.

This particular explanation is based on two premises:

Firstly, that marriage and divorce data for England and Wales over the past 60 years shows the “divorce risk” is highest between 4 and 8 years of marriage.

Secondly, the majority of these “early years divorces” are initiated by women.

The argument here is that men are “less committed” to marriage – they effectively “slide into it”, particularly following a period of prior cohabitation, without committing to it as completely as their female partners. Wives who become unhappy with this “lack of commitment” then decide to end their marriage.

This argument gains some measure of support from the observation that once a marriage lasts for at least 10 years, divorce rates decline significantly to settle at around the 20% mark (1-in-5 of all first marriages), something that could be considered a “normal rate of divorce” in our society.

2. Separation: LATs and MATs

Separation has, traditionally, been a way for couples to effectively end their marriage without, for whatever reason (legal barriers, social stigma, financial cost…), divorcing. However, because separated couples are not legally divorced it means they are not free to remarry with a different partner`. While the increasing availability of divorce has meant conventional forms of separation are no-longer really necessary, how can this explain falling divorce rates?

When we think about marriage and separation it’s easy to fall into a simple binary mode of thought: either a couple is together (married) or they are apart (separated). While this may be true physically, it’s not necessarily the case emotionally.

While the idea of people “Living Apart Together” (LATs) has gained increasing currency in recent times, even though the numbers are relatively small and largely focused on never-married couples choosing to maintain a “marriage type” relationship / commitment while living separately, the idea of Married Apart Together (MATs) is one that has received less attention but which is arguably more-significant, both numerically and socially.

MATS are couples who separate without ever divorcing – and while they no-longer choose to live together it doesn’t necessarily follow they cut all economic and emotional connections. In relation to the former, for example, both partners may contribute to maintaining a “family home” if there are children involved in the marriage. Similarly, both partners may maintain an emotional connection to each other and / or their children that means they maintain some forms of close, personal, relationship that they don’t want divorce to either disrupt or seriously damage.

3. Later marriage

Later marriage…

One of the things we know about “at risk” marriages across all Western societies is that they are age-sensitive. The risk of divorce is decreases with age, with those most at risk marrying young – in their late-teens, early-twenties.

In England and Wales the average age of first marriage for heterosexual couples in the 1970s was, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, around 23 for women and 25 for men.

By 2016 this had risen to 31.5 for women and 33.4 for men.

This trend for later marriage is reflected in both Europe, where the average age of first marriage is above 30 for both men and women in countries like Germany and France, and North America: where the average age of first marriage for women in the 1970s was around 20 it is now around 28. For men that figure is around 30.

One significant reason for this was cohabitation before marriage. Stripe (2019), for example, notes that:

By 2016, almost 9 in 10 couples (88%) were cohabiting before marriage”.

This observation both complements and contradicts the kind of New Right explanation we noted earlier:

The former because it confirms the significance of cohabitation in any understanding of both marriage and divorce rates.

The latter because it suggests an alternative explanation – one that doesn’t see high levels of cohabitation as indicative of family breakdown and crisis – involving the idea that where younger couples enter into a period of cohabitation before marrying at a later age than their historical peers their subsequent marriage tends to last. They are, in other words, less likely to divorce.

Reasons for this range from greater levels of physical and emotional maturity – older couples may have lower expectations of “marriage” than their younger peers – to higher levels of financial security that result from completing higher education and establishing a career prior to marriage.

4. Partner choice

This explanation complements the idea of later marriages being more-stable in the long-term by suggesting that both men and women now have more-realistic views about their respective roles within a marriage than was the case in the past.  This idea can be illustrated in a couple of ways:

Firstly, the kinds of traditional, fairly rigid, family roles common in the immediate post-war period in both Britain and America (men as wage-earners / providers and women as mothers / carers) came under sustained pressure in the following decades from the emancipation of women from the home.

The argument here is that increasing female educational success, coupled with the pursuit of a long-term paid career, created significant role conflicts based around changing social and personal identities: what roles, for example, did men expect women to play and how did these expectations fit with a new-found female emancipation that stressed both wider horizons outside the home and greater levels of equality within it. Thus, women becoming progressively unhappy about the restricted role they were supposed to play within a marriage led to conflict and marital breakdown – hence the signficant rise in divorce during this period.

Secondly, and related to the kinds of social changes implicit in the above, the development of cohabitation as a viable, socially-accepted, living arrangement has led to what we might term a more-realistic understanding of couple-relationships – one not clouded by overly-optimistic notions of “romantic love” that are destined to fade under the harsh reality of dirty nappies, crying children and financial worries. In other words, through cohabitation couples learn about their compatibility – or otherwise.

And if the latter they simply don’t marry or break-apart – and hence don’t divorce.

And if the former their subsequent marriage arguably becomes stronger and consequently, all things being equal, less likely to end in divorce.

5. Marriage as an Elite Status

The final explanation here is a more-radical and overarching one (it could reasonably be said to involve an amalgam of all the previous explanations) symbolised Cohen’s (2019) analysis of American divorce rates over the past 25 years. While he recognises a range of conventional “divorce risk factors”, such as marriage at a young age, he argues there may be more-profound and wide-ranging social processes at work which lead to permanently lower divorce rates as a result of increasing levels of social inequality in Western societies.

A relatively simple way to illustrate the basic argument is to problematise the conventional idea that “marriage at a young age” is, per se, a high-risk divorce factor. As Cohen (2017) argues, his research shows:

There is a real decline in divorce and it’s concentrated among young people. Their chances of divorcing have fallen over the last decade.”

While these two ideas may appear contradictory – the risk of divorce is highest among young people, yet the decline in divorce is concentrated among this group – this can be resolved by refining the initial observation:

In America and to some extent Britain and Europe, higher levels of education – and subsequent incomes – among young people translate into higher levels of marriage and lower levels of divorce.

Conversely, lower levels of education and lower levels of income among young people translate into lower levels of marriage and, where couples do marry, higher levels of divorce.

The future of marriage?

In other words, marriage and divorce rates are closely related to a combination of category markers like age, social class and social inequality: the greater the levels of social and economic inequality in a society the lower are the levels of marriage and divorce. Put simply, the poor are increasingly less likely to marry and more-likely to divorce, while the reverse is true for the affluent: they are more-likely to marry and less-likely to divorce.

This means that if you simply take age as a category marker for, say, marriage failure / divorce there is a strong correlation. If, however, you take class and age as category markers the correlation is significantly weaker. So while “age” is an important surface marker for marriage and divorce, social class and levels of economic inequality may be more important underlying markers.

In this respect writers such as Cohen show that factors such as age, gender and ethnicity intersect with class (as expressed through proxies such as level of education and financial security) in ways that paint a complex picture of marriage and divorce rates and their sensitivity to change.

In so doing they draw together many of the “high risk” divorce factors we’ve previously noted (such as age at first marriage, gendered expectations of marriage and levels of financial security) that can be expressed in the idea that, as Cohen puts it, marriage is:

an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality”.

In other words, what generally explains falling divorce rates is that marriage, particularly in America but also in Europe and Britain, is increasingly a choice made by the better-off; those who, for want of a better description, occupy the higher level class positions in these societies. As Cohen (2019) concludes:

Marriage is becoming increasingly selective, while economic security increasingly predicts marital stability…In that context, the trends presented here describe progress toward a system in which U.S. marriage is rarer and more stable – a more elite status – than it was in the past”.

In this respect, falling divorce rates can be explained by one over-riding factor: marriage is increasingly a status associated with economic elites – those who have the economic and cultural resources to “make it work”.

For the poorer sections of society marriage is either no-longer seen as an attractive and viable option or, when it is entered-into, is culturally and economically difficult to maintain over time.

To put it bluntly, this general argument suggests falling divorce rates are indicative of the fact that:

– the rich get married (almost exclusively to each other) and their financial security allows them to broadly maintain long-term stable relationships.

– the poor, for a variety of reasons – particularly but not exclusively financial – increasingly don’t (which means, of course, they don’t divorce…).

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