Divorce rate drops to 21-year low as couples marry later or not at all

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A fashion for marrying late appears to be working, sending the divorce rate in England and Wales to its lowest for 21 years.

Figures showed 141,135 divorces were granted last year, compared with 144,556 in 1999. It was the lowest level since 1979, when 138,706 couples were divorced, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) said yesterday. The statistics reflect a longer-term fall in divorce rates since a peak in 1993 and are explained by fewer marriages and an apparent tendency ofthose who marry later to put more effort into staying together.

The marriage guidance group Relate said fewer marriages inevitably meant fewer divorces and that those who married later were more emotionally mature and had more idea what they wanted from marriage. They were also staying married longer before divorcing and making more effort at resolving problems.

"People are now of a generation that has seen the effects of parents and friends getting a divorce and realises it can create as many problems as it solves," said Denise Knowles, a Relate counsellor and spokes-woman. "They are investing more in their marriage and want to know why something is not working rather than giving up at the first sign of trouble."

Divorces rose from 23,868 in 1960 to 165,018 in 1993 and have fallen steadily since then. Wedings fell from 368,853 in 1979 to 346,697 in 1989 and 263,515 in 1999. Robert Whelan, director of Family and Youth Concern, said the fall in divorce was related to marriage being at an all-time low.

"These statistics only show that marriage is more stable but [that] is only part of the wider picture that shows marriage is a lesser part of our society. There is a larger proportion of people who are not married and will never marry and [the fall in the divorce rate] is misleading." The figures revealed the family was in a "very, very serious situation" and were only "superficially encouraging.

"The family is the most important institution of the society and it's the principal means of transmitting culture from one generation to the next. Co-habitation is increasingly an alternative to marriage rather that preparation for it," he said.

The ONS said marriage remained the most popular arrangement for family units. Two-thirds were married, compared with 14 per cent who cohabited and 20 per cent who were single parents.

The figures showed divorce rates were highest among men and women aged between 25 and 29. The average age at divorce continued to rise, from 40.9 years for men and 38.4 years for women in 1999 to 41.3 and 38.8 years respectively in 2000.