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 & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit