Falling divorce rates: Are men more committed or more hands-on?

Don’t let the facts ruin a good story, as they say. The so-called “seven year itch” has never existed in the UK.

If you track the divorces of couples getting married in any year since the 1960s, you find that the peak years for divorce are consistently and invariably between years three and six. By the time couples get to the seven year point, their risk of divorce is well on the way down.

Nevertheless, popularised by a 1950s Hollywood film starring Marilyn Monroe, the media still love the concept of the seven year itch.

Yesterday the Sunday Times ran a prominent – and excellent – article on a piece of analysis I did especially for them based on those infamous first seven years of marriage.

The results are really interesting. Couples who married in 1991 had the highest rates of divorce in the early years. Comparing the most recent couples to this peak year:

  • Divorce rates are down by a quarter (24%) over the first seven years. This is couples who married in 2005. (See note below)
  • Divorce rates are down by a half (48%) over the first three years. This is couples who married in 2009.

There’s one other thing happening here. A couple of years ago I got hold of official data on who files for divorce. Around two thirds of divorces are granted to wives and one third to husbands. What is interesting was that all of this fall in divorce rates involved fewer divorces being granted to wives. There has been little or no change amongst divorces granted to husbands.

So what’s going on here?

  • Couples are doing better early on.
  • Men are doing better early on.

Any plausible explanation for this has to account not just for the fall in divorces but also the big gender difference. So this effectively rules out the simplest explanation – that it’s all about fewer couples getting married in the first place.

Until now, my best explanation has been that this fits with the latest research into commitment. Men who “slide” into marriage tend to be less committed. Men who “decide” tend to be more committed. As cohabitation has become more widely accepted, maybe men are feeling less pressure from their families to do the decent thing and tie the knot. So those who were previously “sliding” are no longer doing so. Today’s men really buy into it. Hence stronger marriages early on and fewer wives pushing for divorce.

Susanna Abse of Tavistock, the couples counselling organisation, came up with a really interesting alternative for the Sunday Times article. She reckons the change is because today’s men are more hands-on as husbands and fathers. Hands-on husbands make happier wives.

I think this could be a case of chicken and egg. If men who marry are more committed, they will probably also be more hands-on. Either way, it involves a certain attitude or decision to begin with, whether to be committed or be hands-on.

Whatever the explanation, the good news is that men are doing better!

Note: You can get a good sense of the change in divorce rates from official ONS data. Open the first excel file you see in this link, click on “Table 2”, and read down the 7 year column. You should see the cumulative divorce rate drop from 17 to 14, which is an apparent reduction of 18%. Using the same method as ONS, my model has all the decimal places which shows this change is actually 20%. Where my model differs from ONS is by adding in an adjustment for the couples who marry overseas, which takes the reduction in divorce rates up to 24%. You can do the same thing with the 3 year column, which shows a drop from 2 to 1. Using the same method and doing the numbers more precisely, this change is actually 48%. 

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