'Til debt us do part: recession blamed for rise in divorce rate

Crash takes its toll on relationships as official numbers show splits up 5 per cent this year
  • @tompeck

The summer of 2010 might have produced one of the most unlikely of political marriages, but away from the Downing Street garden, it would seem the picture was not quite so rosy. For the first time since 2003, divorce rates in the UK rose last year, by a not insignificant 4.9 per cent. The most common cause: "unreasonable behaviour".

Click here to view the graphic 'For richer for poorer... Divorce on the up again'

More than 132,200 couples had their marriages ended in 2010, compared with 126,496 the year before, show figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Civil partnership dissolutions also rose but, unlike marriages, the number of civil partnerships is rising rapidly. Of the marriages that ended, the average length was 11.4 years. Half of divorcing couples had at least one child under 16 living at home.

The government statisticians who compiled the figures suggested that the dire state of the economy could be to blame. "[The results] could be consistent with the theory recession is associated with an increased risk in divorce, but with a delayed impact," the ONS report said, a theory that divorce lawyers were quick to echo.

"This is a blip," said Marilyn Stowe, senior partner at Stowe Family Law. "In 2009, when the recession really hit, couples were deciding not to get divorced. There was a general stagnation. I think the shock of the recession meant any other domestic problems took a back seat. When the recession started to flatline, we saw an increase in clients the following year."

Ms Stowe said the recession had reduced the number of "big money" divorces, but said the squeeze on what she described as "middle-money people" had brought about a rise. "Its hard to pay school fees," she said. "There's higher tax. That puts pressure on people. They are more likely to become candidates for divorce. But I don't think last year's high numbers will affect the overall trend, which remains downward or flatlining.

"Remember, people are getting married later now, and have co-habited for longer, and often people don't get married at all. The ones that finish quickly these days are people who are quite young who've got married almost just to have a fantastic wedding. This gets borne out in the statistics more quickly."

But most divorces are still between less well-off people. "Divorce is clearly on the rise for us," said a lawyer at legal-aid firm in Macclesfield, who did not want to be named. "A lack of disposable income puts pressure on families, but there are other, serious factors. People no longer see divorce as a problem. Domestic violence cases are on the rise, and sharply. Since the Baby P case, social services intervene far more quickly than they used to, and make couples separate who might not have done."

The most common age for divorce last year was 40-44; divorce rates among the over-sixties also rose.