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Study notes

Families: Changing Patterns of Separation and Divorce

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

It is much easier to find out information about divorce than it is separation. Divorce greatly increased after the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. This legislation made getting a divorce much easier and took away the need to prove that someone was at fault. It also made it equally easy for a woman to obtain a divorce as a man.

Possible reasons for the rapid increase in divorce rates include:

  • Legislative changes. The 1969 act is one of a number of reforms that have made divorce easier over the years and have seen a subsequent increase in divorces.
  • Secularisation. While people have taken vows such as “what God has brought together let no man put asunder” divorce is a very big deal. But it might seem less so when it is viewed more as a legal contract that can be legally terminated. Also there is less religious or social stigma attached to being a divorcee than there used to be.
  • Female emancipation. In the past women would fear divorce because of the financial risk of losing their husband. Today however women are much more likely to have independent finances and be able to manage on their own.
  • Child support. Furthermore, women know that men will be expected to pay maintenance to their children.
  • The pure relationship. Again Giddens’ concept of the pure relationship and people using relationships as part of their self-identity and experiencing serial monogamy is highly relevant here. People do not necessarily expect their marriages to last forever but rather seek perfection.

Evaluating sociological explanations of rising divorce rates

  • It is certainly true that changes to the law that increased the accessibility of divorce greatly increase the divorce rate. What is less clear is whether it greatly increased the rate at which marriages broke down. If people could not get a divorce, then clearly that was not an option, but people still separated, or indeed lived separate lives in the same home. It is harder to find any statistical support for this and would require careful analysis of census returns to find evidence of separation, and there really is no way of accessing historical separation under the same roof. Similarly, there are plenty of recorded cases of bigamous marriages from before the Divorce Reform Act, where people separated and remarried as if they had divorced (and clearly many of these will not be recorded, especially if the second relationship did not involve a registered wedding).
  • As such, we cannot be sure whether the other factors mentioned really have had a big impact on marital breakdown as we cannot quantify with any certainty how much marital breakdown has increased, only that there have been a lot more divorces.

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