Splits and splices: the real figures on divorce

William Hartston quotes the odds on staying hitched
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Divorce, for reasons that momentarily elude me, was very much in the news last week, often accompanied by the pseudo-statistic that "one in three marriages ends in divorce". But what, if anything, does this mean?

In England and Wales in 1992 (the last year for which we have complete figures) there were 311,364 marriages and 160,345 divorces. That might appear to suggest a failure rate greater than one in two; but the marriages of 1992 can hardly be compared with the divorces of the same year. Indeed, 30,290 of those divorces were after marriages lasting more than 20 years, so should by rights be compared with the marriage figures in the 1970s or earlier. To make any valid statement, we should have to wait until all marriages contracted in a particular year have come to their natural or legal ends. By which time the figures would be too far out of date to be any use. We can, however, make a good estimate of what's going on these days by taking the past 10 years' figures.

In 1982, there were 342,166 marriages in England and Wales. Since then, each year has seen a termination of about 37,000 marriages of up to four years' duration, and 42,000 lasting between five and nine years. Each year from 1983 to 1987, we would expect about a fifth of the 37,000 divorces to have come from 1982 marriages. And each year from 1988 to 1992, we would expect about a fifth of our 42,000 figure to have come from 1982 marriages. So by 1992, roughly 79,000 of the 1982 marriages were over.

Now, the figures for recent years show a consistent trend for divorces within the first 10 years of marriage to comprise roughly half the total divorce rate. So if 79,000 of our 1982 marriages had ended in divorce by 1992, we could expect another 79,000 to reach the same sad conclusion in due course. Which adds up to 158,000 of the 342,166 we started with.

Things are clearly worse than we thought. It's not one in three marriages that end in divorce; it's closer to one in two. And that may help to explain why fewer people are getting married. In 1982, of every 1,000 people in the population, 13.8 got married. The figure peaked at 14.0 in 1987, but had dropped to 12.2 by 1992. Meanwhile, the divorce rate per 1,000 married couples grew from 12.0 in 1982 to an all-time high of 13.6 in 1992.

Between 1970 and 1991, the number of divorces in the UK as a whole had more than doubled. The only consolation appears to be that we are still outside the top 10 in the world divorce league. The Maldives, Liechtenstein and Peru take the medals for divorces, with the US in fourth place.

However, if you really want to know the chances of a 1996 British marriage ending in divorce, you'll have to ask again in the year 2050.