Divorce rate “plummets”, as women-instigated divorces drop by nearly 40,000 in a generation, by Alistair Thompson

The divorce rate has plummeted to levels not seen since 1970, according to a major new report, published today, as women shun submitting applications.

The study, Why are fewer women (but not men) divorcing? from the Marriage Foundation finds that the overall predicted lifetime risk of divorce for couples marrying today is now 35 per cent, the same as for couples marrying in 1970, down from 44 per cent for couples who tied the knot in 1986.

Interestingly, it finds this drop is almost entirely due to fewer women submitting applications, a change of nearly 40,000 since 1986. “The big trend in divorce rates has been a steady long-term rise among couples marrying throughout the 1970s and 1980s followed by a steady long-term fall among couples marrying throughout the 2000s and 2010s,” it says.

“The vast majority (over 80 per cent) of this long-term rise and fall is accounted for by divorces granted to wives in their first decade of married life. After ten years of marriage, divorce rates become highly predictable and have barely changed in decades. Unlike for women, divorces granted to men over any duration of marriage have also barely changed. Why?

“Any account of changes in divorce rates must explain this extraordinary gender effect. It can’t be anything to do with changes in family income or the age at which couples marry. Each should cause both husbands and wives to want to divorce equally, either both more or both less.”

It goes on to argue that the fall in divorce applications being submitted by women, runs counter to the traditional narrative, or classic economic theory that the financial gain to women from being wed reduces if they have their own job or income. “So rising women’s employment and equality should lead to more women divorcing, not fewer,” it says.

“Our explanation is that as social pressure to marry reduces, women’s divorce rates have fallen because the men they marry are more committed. Several studies show that men, more than women, who ‘decide’ rather than ‘slide’ are more committed in their subsequent marriage. As fewer men marry now because they ‘have to’, more men marry because they ‘want to’.

Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation’s Research Director commented: “The significant fall in the divorce rate, (the estimated lifetime risk of divorce) is definitely good news for marriage and blows apart the arguments of those who claim that marriage is increasingly unpopular or outdated. To the contrary, our detailed analysis suggests that those tying the knot today, are far more likely to stay together than their parents in the 1980s.”

The report argues that the normal method of reporting divorces (divorce numbers versus the number of marriages in the most recent year) fails to paint the full picture of what is happening between couples as it merely provides a snapshot of how many divorces take place in any given year and completely ignores marriages overseas.

“Most people know that divorce rates have risen since the 1960s. When I mention that divorce rates have been falling since the 1990s, the response is usually surprise, ‘Really?’, followed quickly by ‘It must be because fewer people are getting married’,” the report says.

While acknowledging that there are fewer people getting married, is says that the number of marriages has been falling consistently since 1972 and during the same period divorces went up before coming down. The number of wife granted divorces fell from 109,883 in 1986 to 70,607 in 2021 a change of nearly 40,000. Over the same period, the number of husband granted divorces fell from 43,439 to 41,327, a drop of 2,112.

It goes on “…Almost all the variation, in raw numbers at least, seems to be around wife-granted divorces…Therefore, fewer divorces granted to wives account for 95 per cent of the reduction in all divorces since the 1980s.

It dismisses the traditional narrative around family formation and dissolution in the developed world which focuses on Becker’s economic theory of the family as a ‘little factory’ and Lesthaeghe’s Second Demographic Transition that looks at how our economic focus has shifted from our survival to our children to ourselves, which is says can’t explain the change.

“The problem is that most of these explanations involve both parties, which is incompatible with a gender-specific account of changing divorce rates.…

“Becker’s explanation is certainly gender-specific but in the wrong direction. He argues that the economic benefit of marriage is that couples can specialise in roles, such as earner and homemaker. This is a more efficient economic system than dividing roles, which amounts to doubling the skills needed to run the ‘little factory’ of the family. However, as women’s employment opportunities have become more equal and more women go to work, the gain to marriage for women reduces. Women should be divorcing more not less.”

The report concludes by arguing that the change can be explained by men “deciding” to marry and not “sliding” into marriage. “…the most plausible explanation comes from reduced social and family pressure to marry. This would especially affect the level of commitment among men, which is more dependent on making deliberate decisions about the future.

“In short, there are fewer men who ‘slide’ into marriage and more who ‘decide’. Men who ‘slide’ into marriage because they ‘have to’, perhaps due to social pressure and expectations, are less committed and more likely to make their wives unhappy. In contrast men who ‘decide’ to marry because they ‘want to’ are more committed.”

Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation’s Research Director added: “No doubt later this month we will see the usual story pumped out by divorce lawyers that it’s a bumper year and business has never been so good. But this is simply not true. Divorces have plummeted since 1986, driven by fewer wife-instigated divorces. This means those who tie the knot now are no more likely to break up than their grandparents marrying in 1970.

“Far from the usual doom and gloom we hear about marriage, the picture is much more rosey. It is still correctly recognised as the gold-standard of relationships and is overwhelmingly backed by young and old, rich and poor who all want to wed. The scandal is that it is increasingly seen as a middle-class institution, unavailable to the poorest – a message driven home by successive governments who have failed to stand up for marriage and failed to end the couple penalty in the tax and benefits system.”

Sir Paul Coleridge, founder of Marriage Foundation added: “The long-term trend revealed by these latest figures demands analysis and explanation. Why is there such a measurable decline over the last 40 years in women filing for divorce? It is surely not that they have become collectively more tolerant of their husband’s unsatisfactory behaviour. It is surely much more likely to be that husbands have improved as husbands as they take the decision to marry more seriously and later on in life (mid 30’s) than their fathers did. This has led to a far higher level of commitment to their wives and families for the benefit of both.

“During the so-called swinging sixties and seventies men felt free to indulge in multiple relationships without much commitment and this attitude fed through to higher divorce rates in the 80s. However, gradually this has itself led to a realisation that ultimately such a way of life is unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. When men “take the marriage plunge” now they do so entirely voluntarily, in it for the long term and with a seriousness not seen for generations. Marriage is and has always been “the gold standard” for long-term, fulfilling couple relationships. Men have finally woken up to this and the resulting stats bear it out.”

Alistair Thompson

Alistair Thompson is the Director of Team Britannia PR and a journalist.