First the civil partnerships, now the civil dissolutions

Fourfold increase in number of same-sex couples breaking up

In terms of break-ups and heartache, gay couples are starting to catch up with their straight counterparts. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show a big fall in civil partnerships and a sharp increase in same-sex dissolutions.

The number of couples entering a civil partnership has dropped 18 per cent – from 8,728 in 2007 to 7,169 in 2008. Dissolutions, the equivalent to a heterosexual divorce, have increased fourfold – from 42 to 180.

The gay rights organisation Stonewall said that the drop in numbers had been expected and the "pent-up demand had been met", with thousands of couples who had waited decades to legalise their partnerships rushing to tie the knot when civil partnerships were introduced in December 2005.

The ONS said that some fall-off was to be expected. Since the partnership law was introduced, 33,965 couples have taken advantage of it.

"These figures show true equality," said a Stonewall spokesperson. "They highlight the fact there there is no difference between the success rates between hetero and homosexual couples, like some sections of the media try and claim. It shows that gay people are exercising their rights to both enter and disband a civil partnership."

The civil partnership lawyer and the head of family law at Anthony Gold Solicitors, Kim Beatson, said she believed dissolutions had increased because people who had been in a stable relationship and had entered a civil partnership had since re-evaluated and determined that the relationship had gone stale, while others had been a bit "too fresh" when they entered a civil partnership.

"Some couples were caught up in the romance of the occasion and therefore probably entered into it from not as a stable background. But as with any forms of marriage, gay or straight, these types of relationships would come to an end.

"We also can't forget that there is a huge number of gay and lesbian couples who regard the civil partnership as second rate to marriage, and simply not good enough."

The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said that gay couples were now waiting in the hope the law would change regarding same-sex marriage.

"Initially, most were ready to settle for civil partnerships. After years of no legal rights they were desperate to get something. Now the mood is shifting in favour of full legal equality – the right to get married in a registry office on the same level as heterosexual couples."

While a significantly higher number of gay men enter civil partnerships, more lesbians decide to dissolve them – 116 of 180 registered dissolutions were by female couples.

Stonewall refused to comment on the disparity. Ms Beatson said it could be linked to the possibility of children within female partnerships: "I think the desire to dissolve and formalising the dissolution when children are involved is of greater importance, and female couples are still more likely to have children than male couples." In technical terms, a dissolution is similar to a heterosexual divorce – couples can only apply for a dissolution after spending a minimum of 12 months together. The dissolution process takes four to six months and can be costly.

The civil partnership lawyer Arona Sarwar has seen a sharp increase in pre-nuptial agreements.

"We have always had a lot of gay clients but now more than 90 per cent of our pre-nups are for civil partnerships," she said. "I think gay couples are just more savvy about the fact that relationships can end," she said.

The London Borough of Westminster is the most popular location for civil partnerships, with 234 male and 48 female partnerships registered last year. Brighton was the second most popular location, with 158 male and 116 female partnerships registered.

Case Study: Matt Lucas and Kevin McGee

Matt Lucas and his partner, Kevin McGee, became the first high-profile gay couple to dissolve their civil partnership last October.

The comedian, famous for his role as solitary "homosexualist" Daffyd in the BBC show Little Britain, split up with Mr McGee, a television producer, after six years together. Their partnership, celebrated with a ceremony and lavish reception in 2006, had lasted 22 months. In a joint statement they called the decision "amicable".

Seen as a test case for the rules governing the dissolution of civil partnerships, media speculation focused on the amount Mr McGee, 31, would receive in the settlement. This intensified after Lucas hired the law firm Mishcon de Reya, which had previously represented Heather Mills and Diana, Princess of Wales.

Lucas's personal fortune is estimated to stand between £10m and £20m, garnered through a string of lucrative comedy deals.

It is not known whether the couple had signed a pre-civil partnership agreement and the eventual dissolution settlement has not been made public.

Lucas, 35, whose break came as a giant drum kit-bothering baby on the quiz show Shooting Stars, tied the knot shortly after civil partnership laws enabling same-sex legal unions came into force in December 2005. The couple had reportedly fallen "out of love".

Elliot Ross