Health: Why oh why is feminism blamed for divorce rates?

Britain on the couch

WHY OH why does the divorce rate keep rising? Actually, the rise is part of a century-long trend, of which the rate of acceleration is staggering and the statistics reward close inspection.

The number of divorces in England and Wales in 1857 - the last year in which divorce could be achieved only by decree of Parliament - was just five. With courts able to decree divorces, this had risen to an average of 215 per year in the period 1870-1874, to 590 per year in the period 1900-1904 and to 710 in the period 1910-1913. In short, until the First World War, divorce was virtually unheard of and confined to the rich.

The annual average for the four years immediately after the First World War was four times greater than immediately before it. The rise then settled down to a slower rate, reaching 4,000 by 1930, only to rocket again after the Second World War, stabilising at an average of 27,000 a year in the period 1952-1960.

In other words, there were already about 45 times more divorces in 1952 than at the start of the century. In the Sixties the number of divorces doubled, and it doubled again in the Seventies, and, in 1995, there were 165,000 divorces in England and Wales - 280 times more than in 1900. With different timing, similar trends occurred in Germany, in much of the rest of Europe and in the US, so this is obviously not just a British disease.

At the first level of explanation of this century-long trend are the reasons that divorcing couples themselves give. Like characters from situation comedies, the genders offer predictably different reasons.

Wives tend to cite physical violence, verbal abuse, financial problems, mental cruelty, drinking, neglect of home and children and a lack of love. Husbands are wont to cite parents-in-law and sexual incompatibility. However, most students of the subject treat these explanations as symptoms of deeper causes.

The next level consists of a series of conditions or antecedents that have been identified as correlating with divorced couples as opposed to intact couples and that include marrying young, marrying in a register office and being poor, among dozens of other factors.

But these are not necessarily explanatory in themselves. That register office weddings are less enduring, for example, is not caused by the ceremony in itself, but by the reduced commitment to the concept of marriage that such a ceremony is assumed to indicate - and, consequently, a greater reluctance to stick it out if the relationship sours.

The final level of explanation boils down to the effects of industrialisation and urban living. These are behind a range of factors such as rising expectations of what marriage can supply, liberalised divorce laws, increased numbers of working women, the decline of religion, improved education and welfare and reduced stigma as more people know divorcees and as the media reflects that trend.

It is from this list that most explanations for the rise in the second half of the century are drawn. The introduction in 1969 of "no-fault" divorce is often blamed for the rise, but the numbers had already doubled in the previous eight years - if anything, the new act was an effect rather than a cause.

None the less, one extremely influential aspect of the legislation was increased access to legal aid, which eased divorce for those on low incomes, particularly women. Changes to the rules of eligibility in 1914, 1920, 1949 and 1960 meant that, by 1966, one third of divorcees were from unskilled manual professions. Where once only the rich could afford divorce, now it was available to anyone - including women with no independent means.

The increased participation of women in the workplace was equally critical in making divorce a realistic financial plan. Where once a woman with a poor husband might have found herself with no income after a divorce, the fact that she could find work made her more confident about starting a new life.

Although there is no clear causal relationship, divorce and female employment are correlated. In 1980 in the US, for example, 50 per cent of married women worked whereas 75 per cent of those divorced did so.

Important, too, was the potential for gaining employment. In the Sixties and much of the Seventies, the easy availability of employment meant that, even if a woman were not actually employed, she felt confident of finding a job. Jobs may also have provided a psychological buttress - a protection against loneliness and isolation - and continuity during the separation and divorce process. On top of this, the newly established welfare state provided a safety net.

However, at least as significant was the change in values and morality. The stigma of divorce, which had been slowly eroded during the previous 75 years, seemed to collapse during the late Sixties and early Seventies. With the increasing tendency for people to live alone and apart from family networks, social controls and pressures to conform to moral edicts of older generations were eroded.

Taken together, all these changes meant that more people knew someone who was divorced, and it became more acceptable to have this status... so more people felt able to follow suit. As television tightened its grip on the public imagination and replaced radio as the main broadcast entertainment, it reflected the reduced stigma, in the process reinforcing the reduction.

At the same time there was a revolution in perceptions of the importance of relationships to happiness. The emotional content of marriage and deriving emotional fulfilment from it - the aspect of marriage which is, arguably, the most fragile - became unprecedentedly significant. The higher such expectations rose, the less they were likely to be fulfilled.

This change is linked by most analysts to the change in women's attitudes and expectations. Hardly a day goes by in the 90 per cent of the press that is right wing without one or other columnist (some of them divorcees or notorious extramarital philanderers themselves, and mostly men) lamenting the effect of feminism on modern marriage.

But it is not feminism as such that is to blame, it is the strain that modern life is placing on gender roles - as I shall explain next week.

Oliver James's book `Britain on the Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950 Despite Being Richer' is now available in paperback, published by Arrow at pounds 7.99

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game