Is the financial crisis leading to more divorces?

The relationship between love and money is a little bit more complicated than that

There aren't many things to look forward to about Christmas in a recession. The bills, the budgets, the costly hangovers. Perhaps, though, hunkering down with your loved one is one of them. Enjoying a bit of Quality Street time.

Or not. For the first time in almost a decade, more people are opting for a divorce. Figures released week showed divorce rates rose by a staggering 5 per cent, this, after seven consecutive years of decline. What's more, the couples parting ways weren't just flash-in-the pans who rushed into marriage. There's no Fantasy Wedding effect at play, no Bridezilla knock-on. These are established partnerships, the average lasting just over 11 years. The typical divorcee didn't get carried away watching the Royal Wedding. They're in their forties, and frequently they have children.

But why? As the Black Eyed Peas (almost) said, where has the love gone? Well, the conventional wisdom is, down the plughole, along with the economy. Certainly that was the tone that reports took last week, and there is some reason to believe them. Divorce rates increased rapidly in 1993 in the wake of the 1990-92 recession, and did the same in the early Eighties.

We all know that relationships come under pressure when times are tough. Money is frequently cited as one of the most common causes of conflict amongst couples. Some 40 per cent of middle-aged couples argue more about financial worries than any other issue. It's a symptom Dr Victoria Galbraith, counselling psychologist, recognises only too well. "Not being able to live their previous lifestyle takes a toll. Many people gain self-esteem from their financial position and material goods. When the cash flow halts, strain appears due to the blow to self-esteem. That can take the form of anger, hostility and frustration."

And yet perhaps we shouldn't jump to conclusions too quickly. Divorce may be increasing, and economic growth decreasing, but the relationship between love and money is rather more complicated than that. Hop across the Atlantic, and the picture looks rather different. There, they've recorded reduced rates of divorce since the recession. In June the US government claimed that money worries were deterring couples from parting ways, an assumption backed up by studies at the University of Virginia, where academics found that those who had been thinking of splitting held back, fearing both the legal costs and the pressure of "going it alone". On the other hand, infidelity was found to have risen. A study by the University of Kansas claimed that men were biologically more prone to promiscuity when their environment was threatened. "It's like living on the savannah and finding you don't have enough fruit and the animals are scarce," said one psychologist. There are other reasons, too, for us to be less faithful during tough times. It's a cheap, easy thrill, and that seems to be what we're after. It's no coincidence that sales of lingerie and sex toys have soared in the gloom.

So what can we take from this complicated picture? Is it simply a matter of culture? Of Brits, abandoning their stiff upper lip and heading straight to the lawyer's office, while Americans keep calm and carry on? Possibly. More likely is that it's all down to timing.

Those US statistics may have been published in June, but they were harvested rather earlier, back in 2009. Then the global economy had only been on the blink for a year or so, and it was far from clear in which direction it would continue. Few "ordinary" people realised the length of time the pain would continue.

And if we return home to look at the UK there are signs that, when the gloom first hit, Brits, like their American cousins, were scared of splitting. After all, the number of divorces in 2009 was the lowest recorded since 1974. Moreover, the evidence suggests we still want to be in a relationship, now more than ever. When surveyed, 45.5 per cent of those without a partner believed that finding one would help them cope better with the current climate. So what has changed since 2009? Quite a few things. We now know it's not just a matter of a short sharp shock. A lean economy looks set to be a way of life for some time, more so since George Osborne announced his intention to extend the deficit reduction plan until 2017. Hopes of toughing it out with a partner you're no longer happy with until the economy recovers suddenly looks a lot less feasible. Perhaps we're simply making up for lost time, going through with the divorces we postponed two years ago.

But something else has changed, too. When the crisis first hit, it was widely dubbed the "mancession" due to the droves in which men were losing their jobs. Now women are catching up, thanks in large part to the public sector cuts being carried out by the Government. With women comprising the overwhelming majority of those posts due to go, and the Fawcett Society warning that they are set to bear the brunt of other cuts, the economic situation looks rather differently gendered. Is it possible that relationships are crumbling under the strain of duel unemployment? After all, with one partner out of work there's a straightforward reason to remain in a relationship: security. "While it may cause resentment, there is indeed a financial reason for the more dependent person to remain within the relationship," agrees Galbraith. With both parties out of a job, that reason vanishes.

So has the credit crunch caused the marriage crunch? It's hard to tell. Certainly, to draw hasty conclusions would be unwise, given that our initial instinct, when recession hit, was not in fact to split but to stay together. Either way, one thing's for sure: tax credits for a married couple no longer seems like such a vote winner.

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