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2010 Divorce Rates and Longer Term Trends

01st February 2012
By StuMitchellmw in Divorce
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On 8th December, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released the latest figures on divorces taking place in 2010. Having recently written about the trends over recent years, and what this tells us about the health of marriage as an institution, it is worth considering how these latest stats affect the bigger picture.

The headline is that the number of divorces in 2010 rose; the first annual rise in eight years (since 2003) and seemingly out of step with the broader trend. The total number of divorces that occurred in 2010 came to 119,589 representing a 4.9% increase on 2009’s 113,949 divorces. Although, on the surface, this does seem to suggest a rise in the prevalence of divorce the figure could potentially be explained by other factors such as a larger married population - more tellingly the divorce rate, that is the percentage of the married population that got divorced, also rose from 10.5% in 2009 to 11.1% in 2010. So does this reinforce the perception that more marriages are failing?

Rather than an indication of a broader shift in societal attitudes it is more likely that the results for 2010 mark a glitch in a longer term decline in divorce rates. This kind of glitch or spike in divorce rates has been seen at other points in recent history when the country has been on the tail end of a recession. In 1993 the rate spiked following the recession between 1990 and 1992. There seems to have been a lag between the worst of the financial troubles and a jump in divorces and it seems plausible that this could also hint at causality; financial issues are one of the major causes of relationship breakdowns and the lag may be explained by a) an initial reaction to ‘pull together’ to deal with money issues, b) the build up of subsequent pressures in the relationship and then, c) once the relationship has broken down, the time it takes for divorce process itself to complete.

In terms of the broader picture, the actual number of divorces has been noticeably falling for the last decade although it is easy to attribute this to the corresponding fall in marriages and previous divorce trends eroding the size of the married population in the first place. The fact that the divorce rate has been steadily falling too suggests that those who are married are less likely to split.

Further evidence comes from the profile of those couples involved. More divorces involved individuals aged 40-44 than any other age group in 2010 but interestingly it seems that the age at which people divorce is creeping up (both men and women had 0.2 increases to 44.2 and 41.7 respectively), albeit in line with the rise in the age at which people are marrying, whilst the duration of marriages has plateaued. Moreover, the highest rate of divorces for men in 2010 was seen in the 30-34 year old age group rather than the 25-29 group in 2009 (women were unchanged). This may all suggest that marriages are starting later but are beginning to last a little longer.

Despite the latest figures telling us that 33% of marriages starting in 1995 had failed in the 15 year period to 2010 (up from 22% of those in the same 15 year period from 1970) the ONS is suggesting that the figures they have obtained so far may indicate that the rate of divorce before the 15th year for more recent marriages may be likely to decline. Again this adds a little more weight to the argument that couples now seem to be waiting longer (cohabiting), being more cautious but ultimately, as a result, being more successful in their marriages.

In summary, it would seem most likely that the rise in divorces in 2010 is a spike, as witnessed in previous periods of recession, rather than a longer term trend. There is still evidence in the age and duration of those getting divorced to support the bigger picture that couples are being more successful in marriage, but only time will tell.

© Stuart Mitchell 2012

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