Divorce rates are down by 27% since the early 2000s, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
But why? What is going on? It’s nothing to do with fewer people marrying. Wedding rates are down 10-15% during the 2000s. Yet there are still at least two weddings for every divorce.
We commissioned ONS to tell us how many divorces were granted to wives and husbands in each year, and how long each marriage had lasted.
Comparing the latest divorce rates for couples who married one, two, three, years ago etc with only the couples who got married in 1986 – the worst year in UK history to get married in terms of subsequent divorce rates, and coincidentally my own wedding year! – a striking gender difference emerges.
Whereas there has been no appreciable change in the rate at which husbands are granted divorces today compared to the 1986 intake of couples, divorces granted to wives have fallen sharply. This trend was not apparent ten years ago.
In other words, something specific has changed in the last decade to make fewer women file for divorce during the early years of marriage.
Have a look at the chart below. The orange oval shows how the biggest fall in divorce rates for wives has taken place between the second and fifth years of marriage.
If it were something to do with shifts in work patterns or perhaps couples marrying older, it really ought to have affected both men and women. Yet it hasn’t.
One thing that has changed that might have made a big difference to the way men approach marriage. Social and family pressure to marry has definitely reduced. Since men’s commitment in particular depends on making clear and deliberate decisions about the future, less pressure to marry means those men who do marry now do so with clear intent.
Here’s how it might work.
Imagine a man who marries in the 1990s under social pressure from his family or friends. Do the right thing, they say. Make an honest woman of her. Tie the knot. So he enters marriage under a certain amount of duress, without ever fully buying in. His sense of dedication is weaker than that of his wife. However, so long as things are good, he is broadly content with his new arrangement. But over time, and perhaps with the arrival of a young baby, inevitable little conflicts emerge between him and his wife. Instead of dealing with them responsibly, he feels less constrained in the way he behaves because he knows he never really bought in to a long term plan in the first place. But just as he was sucked into marriage without making the decision for himself, inertia and indecision keep him in the marriage. His behaviour appears increasingly indifferent and disrespectful to his wife. After only a few years, she has become well aware of his indifference. Fed up with treading on eggshells around him, it is she who pulls the plug.
Imagine now a man who marries in the 2000s. He is under no such family or social pressure to marry. So when he does commit to his wife and his marriage, he commits with all his heart. When the conflicts emerge, he knows that he has a responsibility to sort them out. There is a long term plan at stake here. His wife appreciates the effort he makes to sort things out and thus knows he is fully committed to her. Serious difficulties are therefore much less likely to materialise in these early years.
Almost the entire fall in divorce rates over the last ten years can be explained by this. A few less men half-heartedly ‘sliding’ into marriage and a few more men ‘deciding’ into marriage with real intent.
In short, men are behaving better.