Divorce figures at 1970s levels as couples stick it out amid recession worries

Figures continue to demonstrate a "general decline" in divorce since 2003
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The number of people getting divorced is falling despite fears of a break-up “epidemic” during the recession.

Last year, 117,558 couples formally ended their unions, marking a fall of 1.7 per cent on the figure for 2010 when 119,589 marriages were annulled or dissolved.

The official figures demonstrate that more than four in every 10 marriages in England and Wales end in divorce.

A breakdown of the numbers found 10.8 married people in every 1,000 legally separated last year, compared with 12.9 people in every 1,000 in 2001.

This takes the divorce rate back to that seen in the 1970s, The Marriage Foundation said.

Experts say the figures demonstrate couples are choosing to stick it out amid the recession.

Analysis of Office for National Statistics figures - based on marriage, divorce and mortality data for 2010 - show an estimated 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce, compared with 45 per cent in 2005.

The ONS figures reveal divorce rates are highest among men and women aged between 40 and 44.

But they show a "general decline" in divorce since 2003.

Harry Benson, of The Marriage Foundation, said: "The longer term trend in divorce rates remains downwards.

"After peaking in the 1990s, divorce rates are very definitely back at 1970s levels.

"This has nothing to do with fewer people getting married and everything to do with the way couples who do get married are taking it increasingly seriously."

According to a report compiled by the charity in September, divorces initiated by women in the first few years of marriage have fallen by as much as half.

But Marilyn Stowe, senior partner at family law firm Stowe Family Law, suggested the ONS figures - which relate to 2011 - may not reflect current trends and an apparent rise in divorces among couples in the squeezed middle income bracket.

"I am surprised the number of divorces has fallen," he said.

"Our firm has offices around the country and we have all been busier than ever over the past 18 months.

"If our firm's caseload is anything to go by, 'big money' divorces are not yet at their pre-2008 levels. Meanwhile, divorces in the squeezed middle income bracket have been steadily rising, and I expect that this rise will be shown in next year's statistics."

He suggested the turbulent economy played a "key role" in changes in divorce rates.

"A greater number of businesses go into liquidation when a country emerges from recession, and in my experience this principle applies to marriages too," he added.

"Couples will struggle through times of adversity as best they can, but eventually find that despite their best efforts, they simply can't go on any longer. I suppose we will have to wait and see what happens to the divorce rate when the economy improves."