Wedded to divorce

Respect for marriage is at an all-time low.Could the Government revive it?
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How bad are the figures for divorce?

Marriage is certainly on the rocks. In 1993, there were 178,000 divorces in Britain, one for every two marriages that year. Four in 10 marriages entered into in 1987 are likely to break up. A third will probably end in the first 20 years.

Couples are also splitting earlier. Of marriages that took place in 1951, 10 per cent had ended in divorce after 25 years. In contrast 10 per cent of couples who married in 1971 had split up by their sixth wedding anniversary and 10 per cent of those married in 1981 had divorced within 4.5 years. Divorce is now most likely to occur three or four years after marriage. The median length of marriages before divorce is 10 years.

Are the figures getting worse?

No. 1985 was the peak year, reflecting a change in the law allowing couples to petition for divorce after a year of marriage instead of three. But the level has stayed fairly steady just below that peak.

So who is doing the divorcing?

The women are fed up: 70 per cent of the petitions are filed by them.

Is divorce more associated with certain social classes?

The better off are less at risk of divorce, but this may be simply because of their age when they tie the knot and the circumstances under which they marry. Marriages are more likely to break up if the couples are young or there has been a pre-marital conception.

So what do all these divorcees do afterwards?

A lot have another go. More than a third of marriages are the second attempt for either the bride or groom or both. Among those separating between 1981 and 1984, half the men and a third of the women had remarried within six years of divorce. Divorcees are much more likely to remarry than widows of any age: remarriage rates are, for example, 86 per cent higher for 40-44 year old divorced women than for widowed women of the same age.

Do they live happily ever after?

Unfortunately not in many cases. Many break up again: a third of divorces in 1992 was a second or third divorce for one or both partners.

We still like getting married, don't we?

Not as many of us as in the past. The actual number of marriages has been falling for the past 20 years. These days about 330,000 people head up the aisle every year, two thirds of the figure for 1971. And the couples are getting older. Only 1 per cent of bridegrooms and 5 per cent of brides were under 20 years old in 1992: in 1971 the proportions were 9 per cent and 27 per cent respectively. Between 1971 and 1993, the average age at first marriage jumped from 22.6 years to 26.1 years for women and from 24.6 years to 28.1 years for men.

But does divorce really matter?

Yes. For one thing, its leaves everyone poorer. On average each partner loses 40 per cent of their income on divorce. After about four years the man has usually regained his disposable income, while his former wife and children, most of whom go on social security, rarely regain it unless she remarries. Poverty is real problem for divorced mothers: 77 per cent of them live on less than pounds 200 a week compared with 17 per cent of married couples. Men also come off better in terms of finding a new partner: twice as many men remarry or cohabit after divorce as women.

So do children suffer from divorce?

Yes. Although three out of 10 divorcing couples are childless, a growing proportion of children are affected by family breakdown. The number of children under 16 in Britain with parents who divorced in 1993 was 186,000, the highest figure ever. Of these, three in 10 were under five, compared with 25 per cent in 1971 (This proportion has been rising as divorce occurs earlier in marriage). It is estimated that one in four of today's children will experience the divorce of their parents before they reach 16.

This can be very traumatic. Two thirds of fathers never see their children again within two years of divorce, often causing long-term problems. Overall children of divorce do worse in school, in work and in their own marriages. However, it is unclear whether the divorce or conflict between the parents is the cause of the problem. Some research shows that the children of warring parents who go on to divorce start to do badly at school long before the divorce, suggesting that friction between parents is the main problem rather than divroce per se.

Given all these problems, is divorce easy to obtain?

It's certainly easier than it used to be. Until 1937, adultery was the only legal reason for divorce. At that point desertion was added as grounds for break-up. But the big reform came in 1969 when dissolution was allowed on the no fault grounds of an "irretrievable breakdown", proved by a separation of two years. However, if one partner contests the divorce, the other has to wait five years.

Is it cheap and simple?

No. With lawyers costing an pounds 150 an hour, it is expensive. On average, the cost of court proceedings to split up possessions is more than pounds 1,600. But more than a third of those divorcing - most of them women - receive legal aid, leaving the state with a large bill.

So would it be a good idea to provide greater incentives for couples to stay together?

Some people, such as the recently retired Archbishop of York, have suggested that the Government should offer financial inducements, via the tax and benefit system, to keep people in marriage. At the moment, the state provides no help other than via the married couple's tax allowance. Child benefit is paid regardless of whether parents have wed. But it is hard to see how extra financial help would keep couples together. After all, the loss in terms of income, home, pension rights, friends and security is very high when people get divorced. But they still split up.

Would mediation and counselling help couples to stay together?

The research on this question is thin and inconclusive. Relate, the marriage relationship counselling service, is currently studying the outcome for 2,000 clients. Preliminary findings are that of 350 troubled couples who were counselled, 75 per cent were still together six months later.

What is Lord Mackay proposing?

He wants to introduce more mediation, but, realistically, this is unlikely to keep couples together. It will just make the separation more amicable. Couples would go through a compulsory information session with experts and be told about the various processes they would face, including the demands of the Child Support Agency. Couples would be encouraged to use mediation rather than long, expensive trips to the courts to settle questions of money and children. Lord Mackay hopes that there will be big savings in legal aid for family law, which has cost the state more than pounds 500m in the past five years.

But isn't he supposed to be making divorce easier?

Yes. The other aspect of his plan is that his Bill would end the two- year wait for uncontested divorces and five years for contested ones. A year would suffice. This easing of the strictures has incensed his critics on the right-wing of the Tory party. They cannot understand how a Government that produced "Back to Basics" can be proposing the most radical reform of the divorce laws since Harold Wilson's government in 1969.

Lord Mackay has tried to calm his critics by saying that his plans for more mediation will get couples to reconsider divorce. It has convinced some: the Roman Catholic lobby has largely been mollified. But the research indicates that the type of intervention Lord Mackay envisages will come too late to save many marriages. Late in the day, many Tory MPs are beginning to appreciate this fact.

So will they succeed in stopping the Bill?

They might. But the lesson of the past 20 years is that no matter how high the cost to the individuals concerned, and even to the children, couples are no longer prepared to stay married if they are unhappy. The state is fighting a losing battle trying to make them stick to their promises. Lord Mackay knows this. Some of his political colleagues, however, despite their own personal experience of divorce, are still living in a land of romantic fantasy.

How our neighbours break up


A divorce can be granted by local courts on the overall grounds of "breakdown", which will be assumed where matrimonial cohabitation has ended and cannot be expected to be resumed. Divorce may be pronounced, if it is sought by both spouses, after they have lived apart for a year, and if one refuses to resume cohabitation after three years. However, a divorce may be obtained within the first year of separation if the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to remain within the marriage, and if the grounds invoked by the petitioner are connected with the personal behaviour of the other partner.


A divorce can be granted after a year's legal separation, after six months' separation if the parties have agreed to divorce, after two years' living apart, or on the grounds of adultery, bigamy or gross ill-treatment of the other spouse or children. Most divorces are preceded by a legal separation. A divorce can be granted either by the courts or, under an administrative procedure, by the county governor. Divorces can usually be granted by the governor within one month and by the courts within two. Legal representation is not necessary in many cases, and the judge has no obligation to seek reconciliation or mediation before approving the divorce. There are about 32,000 marriages each year and 13,000 divorces out of a population of 5.2 million.


There are three main grounds for divorce: divorce by mutual consent, divorce based on the fault of one of the partners (for instance adultery, or a criminal conviction) and divorce after separation where the spouses have lived apart for a continuous period of at least six years. The average length of proceedings is about eight and a half months where there is agreement and 10 months where there is no agreement. Divorce proceedings based on separation take 15 months. The divorce judge is the family judge in the area where the matrimonial home is located.

The family judge must discuss the possibility of reconciliation. Even if the reconciliation is not successful, the judge cannot announce the divorce immediately because there has to be a three-month waiting period.


Divorce terminates civil marriages, but the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce. A joint petition for divorce takes about four months to process. A spouse can petition for divorce on these grounds: after three years' separation, where one partner has committed serious crimes, when the marriage has not been consummated, where a party is transsexual, or a foreign anulment of the marriage has been obtained. The judge must attempt a reconciliation and can refuse to accept the divorce even if grounds for a breakdown can be established, although this rarely happens. The parties have a 30-day period to reflect on their decision or allow time for appeal before the court's decision is officially registered.


In 1993, there were 88,000 marriages and 30,000 divorces in a population of 15m. In 1960, there were only 6,000 divorces. The only grounds for divorce is that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This can be proven by a joint petition or by the continued assertion of the breakdown by one of the parties. The petitioner only need maintain the belief that the marriage has broken down throughout the proceedings to prove grounds for divorce, even if the breakdown is contested. Cases determined by separation are rare.


The most common ground for divorce is irretrievable breakdown. Judges make orders regarding the terms of divorce. In the canton of Zurich, as well as other cantons, divorce proceedings cannot be started unless the parties first apply for mediation with a justice of the peace. In 1992, there were 45,080 marriages and 14,530 divorces.

Scott Hughes (Source: Family Law in Europe, edited by Carolyn Hamilton and Kate Standley, Butterworth.)