Divorce rates, in The United Kingdom, have been worryingly high since the 1960s. High divorce rates are worrying because marriage stabilizes society by providing stable backgrounds and conditions for the raising of families. There are, periodically, hysterical headlines in the press that the UK’s divorce rate is the highest in the world, yet they use figures that are out of date. According to the Office of National Statistics, divorce rates in the United Kingdom are falling, and are now at their lowest rate since 1977. There was a peak in 1994 and an inexplicable peak in 2004, in the years since 2004, divorce rates have decreased sharply, and since 1994 the rates apart from 2004, have been declining.
Why is this happening? Surprisingly, some people think that the UK’s divorce rate may be connected to its crazy spiraling housing market. Apparently, when house prices rise strongly, so does the divorce rate and, when the housing market falls the divorce rate also falls. Some commentators believe that couples separate, whilst living in the same house during lows in the property market and divorce when the market is high. However, that is a simplistic argument. Although home ownership is high in the UK, 40% of people do not own their own home, to say that house prices determine the divorce rate is wrong. However, could it be that when house prices fall, it is a sign that UK economic conditions are difficult and that bad economic conditions put strain on marriages.
Some commentators have blamed women’s liberation for the high UK divorce rate because it means that women were more likely to leave an unsatisfactory marriage. Whilst that is to some extent true, it only means that women now have the economic freedom that men always had. It is true to say that more women, than men, now file for divorce petitions but that may be for reasons other than women’s equality.
Some commentators point the UK’s allegedly liberal divorce laws give permission to couples to divorce. This may be a small factor in the divorce figures, but divorce is always a tragedy for those involved and it is not an easy or pain free process, as any divorced person will tell you. Some people couple the liberalizing of the divorce law with the lessening of social stigma on divorced persons, but that, too, is an illusion. Divorced people in the UK still carry a social stigma, it is just much more subtle than it used to be. Ask any British mother, whether she would be happy for her child, especially a son, to marry a divorced person.
The UK’s divorce rate is still higher than other countries in the European Union, the UK came joint top with Finland in the Euro stat report for divorce rates in the EU. Some of the EU’s countries are Catholic nations, and the Catholic Church does not approve of divorce, but this still does not explain why Britain tops the divorce rate poll in the EU. There are countries within the EU that predominantly follow the protestant religion and have low divorce rates and the French predominantly follow the Catholic religion and yet France’s divorce rate, although not quite as high as Britain’s, is high for the EU. Perhaps the difference is that people, on the Continent, value family life, and ties, very much more than the British do.
The one thing that happened in Britain and, not elsewhere in the EU, was the rise of individualism, mixed with messages from Margaret Thatcher, she said “there is no such thing as society, only individuals” the British read this as a permission to be selfish. At the same time, consumer credit became much looser and British society became the “I want it, now!” generation, we did not have to save any more for a desired item, we could buy it on credit. Technology advanced rapidly, and when an updated model superseded electrical gadgets or mobile telephones, people did not wait for old models to wear out; they bought the newer model directly it came out and threw the old one away. The British applied all this thinking to marriage as in “if it does not work as you want it to, throw it out and get another”.
In addition, the British tax system, unlike everywhere else in the EU, does not recognize marriage. The married couples’ tax allowance was removed; in 2000, this previously gave married couples a little extra tax allowance. After 2000, this meant that couples were treated as individuals for tax purposes and each given the same allowance as a single person. In the French system, married couples are a joint unit and share a tax allowance. The benefits system also favours lone parents over married parents. A married couple, where one partner stays at home to care for children, pays more tax, a couple where both parents work. The British tax and benefits system effectively penalizes marriage. If the government does not value marriage, why should the people?
Many couples do not bother to marry in the first place in Britain. They just co-habit, even when they have children. There is a misconception, in the United Kingdom, that the term “Common-Law wife” means that the law protects people, especially women, in a co-habiting relationship. People see high profile legal cases brought by celebrities and think that the law automatically gives them protection, should a co-habiting relationship break up. There is little or no legal protection. The term is just a polite way to describe a couple, who live together, and has no basis in law, it never has had in England and Wales, and ceased having any slight relevance in Scottish Law an extremely long time ago.
‘Relate’ formerly The Marriage Guidance Council, says that Britain’s long hours culture mean that couples have little time to build a good relationship with their spouse. When both partners in a marriage work in jobs where their employer expects them to work long hours, it could be that people are just too tired to work at a marriage.
The UK’s divorce rate may be falling because very young marriages are much rarer these days than they were in the 1970’s.
The reasons for Britain’s high divorce rate are complex and inter-related. Divorce rates have been falling, apart from the blip in 2004, since 1994, they are still high but are now at their lowest rate since 1977. No one magic bullet will lower divorce rates, in the United Kingdom, however, the British tax and benefits system should recognize marriage as other countries do. Dispelling the myth that long hours at work mean greater efficiency would help. Society needs to realize that marriage is not a consumable electronic gadget and that divorce is not a pain-free, get out clause. People need to remember that marriage is not a fashion accessory that one can throw away when one is tired of it, but a relationship, that both people need to work at, every day. Too many people think about the fun and excitement of the wedding day, and give very little thought to the marriage. Many think that making the divorce laws more difficult might bring the divorce rate down, but it might be better to begin at the other end and institute pre-marriage counselling for all couples. Many churches already do this and it helps couples to talk through their expectations of marriage, some people’s expectations are very unrealistic.
Bringing the United Kingdom’s divorce rates down is not a simple matter and requires a multi-faceted approach with diverse actions. Britain has the high divorce rates and the unhappiest children in Europe, could it be that the two are part of the same problem?
divorce rate > high divorce