Despite minor fluctuations, there was a steady rise in divorce rates in Britain throughout the twentieth century. The figures show a rising divorce rate over the period from 1961 to 1997, although in the 1990’s the divorces rate seems to have stabilised at around 13per thousand married people. Therefore it isn’t presently increasing. The figure may not appear very high until it is compared with the marriage rate. The statistics show that as divorce has steadied, the decline in first marriages has increased. The lower divorce rate now may be because of the lower marriage rate. If people aren’t getting married they can’t get divorced.
According to Joan Chandler, “if trends continue, approximately 40% of marriages presently being formed will end in divorce. ” The proportion of marriages that are remarriages has also been rising. For example, 15% of all marriages in the UK in 1961 were remarriages for one or both partners; by 1996 this figure had risen to approximately 41%. Whichever way the figures are presented, the rise in divorce has been dramatic. The changing attitudes towards divorce have been institutionalised by various changes in the law which have made it much easier to obtain a divorce. After the Second World War, there were major changes made to divorce laws.
In 1949 the Legal Aid Act was introduced. This provided financial help for those unable to afford legal costs of a divorce. A major change in the divorce law was the passing of the 1970 Divorce Law Reform Act, which made the only grounds for divorce ‘the irretrievable breakdown of marriage’. This went some way to removing the notion of an ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ partner, and led to a significant increase in the divorce rate, yet the figures were rising prior to this and continued many years after so it cannot be seen as the sole reason. New legislation relating to divorce was introduced at the end of 1984.
This reduced the period a couple needed to be married before they could petition for divorce, from three years, to one year. The Family Law Bill of 1996 ended the reliance upon showing that one or both partners were at fault in order to prove that the marriage had broken down. Instead, the partners simply had to assert that the marriage had broken down and undergo a ‘period of reflection’ to consider whether a reconciliation was possible. Normally this period was one year, but for those with children under 16, or where one spouse asked for more time, the period was eighteen months.
Despite a reduction in costs, divorce was still an expensive process during the first half of the twentieth century. It was beyond the means of many of the less wealthy. This was particularly changed by the Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1949 which provided free legal advice and paid solicitors’ fees for those who could not afford them. The economics of divorce were further eased by the extension of welfare provisions, particularly for single parents with dependant children. Although many consider these provisions far from generous, they do provide single parent families with the means to exist without the support of the second partner.
The statistics of divorce rates show that there has been a major increase since new laws were introduced after the Second World War. But the laws were not the sole reason for the increase in divorce. There have been increases in divorce at times when the law was not changed. Hence it is more likely that legal changes reflect other changes in society. Many people have high expectations of marriage, especially young woman through the ‘ideology of romantic love’ portrayed in teenage magazines. When reality fails to live up to this expectation, one feels let down.
This can explain why three quarters of divorces are filed by females. Functionalists like Fletcher as well as Liberal Feminists argue that this simply reflects the higher expectations women have of marriage due to: greater equality, increased opportunities to escape (divorce law changes) and greater financial security through increased job opportunities. Some writers, such as Dennis argue that the family has lost some of its former functions. With no production function, families are only bound together by love. If this is not forthcoming, there is nothing else to keep people together.
If Parsons’ idea of the isolated nuclear family of Young and Willmott’s notion of the privatised nuclear family are correct, it may explain the increase in divorce. Families are now more isolated from their wider kin and so their stigma within extended families of divorce may be reduced. Also, if families are isolated from a wide range of kin, without the support provided by extended families this may, as Leach argues, lead to greater emotional tension. There is also now much less social disapproval of divorce. As divorce becomes more ‘normalised’, society is more tolerant and understanding to marital breakdown.
This can be traced to secularisation in Western society. Less than half of marriages have a religious ceremony now, even among these, few are regular churchgoers. There is no absolute reason for the increase in divorce. Divorce law has simply made it easier, yet it doesn’t explain why divorce has increased when there has been no parallel change in the law. Divorce laws are perhaps better seen as a reflection of our attitudes towards divorce and not a cause of it. Legal changes may have allowed more divorced to take place, but they do not explain why more individuals choose to take the option.