There is a lot of debate between sociologists about trends in divorce rates and what factors impact them. The most commonly reached conclusion is that there are multiple elements which cause the divorce rate to rise or fall; however, some are more significant than others.
The divorce rate is the number of divorces per 1000 married people every year. Recent research has mapped out the divorce rate since the 1950s. It shows the divorce rate increase exponentially, doubling between 1971 and 1981, continuing its upward trend, peaking in 1993, with 180,000. However, since 2005, the divorce rate seems to have slowed down somewhat.
Some sociologists argue that the increase in the divorce rate is due to changing social attitudes. They maintain that an increase in the proportion of individuals who disregard the stigma attached to divorce has led to an increase in the number of divorced people. Therefore, they argue, divorce rates have shot up because divorce has become less stigmatised and is fast becoming a norm for some. They point out that celebrity divorces, for example, make divorce more acceptable – divorce becoming more common, the stigma attached to divorce becoming less severe. An example of this is when Princess Diane divorce Prince Charles.
Another aspect of this argument is that changes in social attitudes have led to the average age at which people get married to increase. In the late 1950s, people tended to marry early because that was the norm; and if they didn’t, there was a stigma attached to them for being too old to marry or that no one wanted to marry them because they were ‘undesirable’. However, now that the age at which people can marry has increased, people have realised that even if they get divorced, they can remarry later on in life, regardless of their age. Research has shown that there has been an increase in remarriages and reconstituted families as the divorce rate has risen.
There are some sociologists who explain the rise in the divorce rates in terms of the spread of feminism, which links in with changing social attitudes. As women become more empowered, they are less willing to endure their husbands’ ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or stay trapped in their unhappy unions. Statistics show that 75% of all divorce petitions in Britain are filed by women. Furthermore, an elevation in the social position of women means that women are able to work and earn their own living; thus they no longer need to rely on their husbands for financial support. In addition, many feminist argue that marriages are repressive institutions that seek to exploit women, with men holding all the power, which has contributed to the number of people choosing not to marry, as well as the divorce rate.
Another argument which also links in with changing social attitudes is secularisation. As the influence of religion lessens, people place less value on taking sacred vows in front of God, civil partnerships and quick marriages in registry offices increasing, the religious barrier to divorce weakens, making it easier for people to divorce later on.
All the arguments put forward so far have suggested that, to a large extent, changing social attitudes has the most impact on the increase of the divorce rate. However, there are some sociologists that argue that there are other factors which have impacted the divorce trends in the last few decades. One argument is that legal changes have led to divorce being easier, quicker and cheaper. The Divorce Reform Act in 1971 allowed people to divorce on the grounds of things like adultery, cruelty, ‘no fault separation’ and marital breakdown. Previous to this, if an individual wanted a divorce, they had to prove that their spouse was committing adultery.
This Act removed the necessity for either partner to prove the other at fault in order to end the marriage. Sociologists who support this view point out that the divorce rates doubled right after the Divorce Reform Act was introduced. On the other hand, some sociologists argue that it is the emergence of the Welfare State which has led to an increase in divorce rate as it provides benefits for women and children so they would not be left destitute if the couple chose to divorce, making it easier for the women to support herself and her children.
Lastly, there are also a group of sociologist who maintain that the rise in divorces is due to the influence of the mass media. They argue that the media portrays a rosy and romantic image of marriage which influences young girls’ views on marriage. However, when the reality is far different from what they expected, many of these young women want to get divorced. According to the website ‘divorce.com’, the third most common reason people divorce is due to “failed or different expectations”.
Overall, it is clear that all sides have powerful arguments. The argument, however, for changing social attitudes is particularly strong; suggesting that, to a large extent, the increase in divorce rates is due to a change in social norms. But one could also argue that other factors, such as secularisation, the influence of the mass media or the change in legislations has resulted in the divorce rate increasing rapidly. Therefore, the most appropriate conclusion would to say that there are multiple factors which cause the divorce rate to rise or fall, with some being more significant than others.