Is divorce becoming less socially acceptable?

By John Hayward 22 Feb 2011

by John Hayward

For the fifth consecutive year the number of divorces granted in the UK has fallen, to 10.5 divorcing people per thousand married population. This is the lowest rate since 1977 and, at 126,496 divorces, is 30 per cent lower than the highest number of divorces, which peaked at 180,523 in 1993.

Interestingly, the conception rate among under-18s is also estimated to be the lowest rate since the early 1980s (38.3 conceptions per thousand women aged 15-17), nearly half (48.8 per cent) of which led to a legal abortion.

The question is what the cause of current trends might be. Is it that fewer couples who are likely to end up going their separate ways are getting married in the first place? If so, it could suggest that the fragility of cohabitation is likely to continue becoming correspondingly worse. For instance, we already know, from our own research, based on over 29,000 cases from the British Household Panel Survey Consolidated Marital, Cohabitation and Fertility Histories, that the marriages ending in divorce of people who cohabit with someone before getting married last, on average, four years less than those whose first experience of living with someone is when they get married. This research also revealed that between the early 1990s and mid 2000s, the proportion of children born to cohabiting parents still living with both parents by the time they reached 16 had dropped from 36 per cent to just 7 per cent (the stability of families headed by a married couple over the same period increased from 70 to 75 per cent).

From April the Office for National Statistics is to ask people in its regular household surveys whether they are happy with their marriages as part of the first official attempt to measure the nation’s well-being or 'happiness index'. If they really wanted to understand the factors underlying the trends, it would be helpful if they gathered some additional basic information about pre-marital sexual experiences. A recent study in the States, for example, found a correlation between delaying sex and a longer-lasting marriage. Analysis of over 2,000 married individuals who participated in a popular online marital assessment indicated the couples who wait until marriage enjoy various benefits when compared to those who started having sex in the early part of their relationship, including:

  • Relationship stability was rated 22 percent higher
  • Relationship satisfaction was rated 20 percent higher
  • Sexual quality of the relationship was rated 15 percent better
  • Communication was rated 12 percent better

Perhaps in time we will see a decline not just in divorce and teenage pregnancies but also in cohabitation; but perhaps only if wisdom (or even just common sense) prevails.

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