The Homestead History-Makers: UK Relationships at the Crossroads 

Published on 27 June, 2017 | Andrew Newbury

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I would hazard a guess that most married – and, in fact, divorcing – couples are so reasonably occupied with the details of events at home that they think little of their place in history.

If that seems a startling opening sentence, allow me to clarify what I mean.

At the moment, I believe that we are witnessing some truly historic developments in the way that households in the UK are both established and, sadly, broken apart.

That consideration came to mind when reading through the latest edition of the divorce data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2015#how-long-do-marriages-of-opposite-sex-couples-last).

They reveal that between 2014 and 2015, the number of divorces in England and Wales fell by just over nine per cent.

To put that drop in context, it continues a decline in the number of couples divorcing but is very nearly three times the percentage fall in the previous 12 months.

It’s worth pointing out that the latest figure (101,055) is lower than at any time since 1971 when the UK’s population was roughly 10 million smaller than it is now.

Such a dramatic shift – far out of step with previous, subtle reductions – cannot easily be explained by any one factor.

There is no single reason why marriages might suddenly appear to be more “strong and stable”, to use one phrase which is very much current.

As is usually the case with the rich seam of data which the ONS presents, detailed contributory patterns emerge which complement my experiences and those of my colleagues at Hall Brown Family Law.

For example, a reduction in men over the age of 60 initiating divorce which even exceeds the 9.1 per cent drop across all age groups is, I feel, due to concerns about the impact which divorce may have on their assets, leaving them with little or no time to restock their finances as they head into retirement.

I believe, though, that another, broader issue might well be playing a more significant part.

As I’ve been telling the Daily Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/21/want-avoid-divorce-dont-marry-childhood-sweetheart/) and other national news media, the new ONS numbers and other related data portray a population which has two distinct attitudes to domestic relationships.

The last two decades, for instance, have seen those couples in England and Wales choosing to cohabit instead of marry more than double – up from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million last year (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2016).

Some of those regard marriage as simply not for them, while others will have been married before and want to avoid a repeat of the distress divorce.

However, their views contrast sharply with those individuals who believe that marriage is something of a gold standard when it comes to partnerships.

Even though marriage is, like divorce, on the decline, it experiences occasional rallies – as in 2014, when the number of religious or civil marriage ceremonies was up 2.7 per cent on the year before (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2014).

Some commentators have suggested that the perceived complexity and cost associated with divorce are forcing people either to quit a failing marriage without formally bringing it to a close (something which can actually be a truly costly mistake) or staying put and suffering in silence.

They reckon that if the groundswell in support for family law reform which has been the subject of recent parliamentary consideration (http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN01409) was to result in what is politely termed a ‘no-fault divorce’, more unhappy spouses might be able to leave in order to start new and happier lives.

It is, in part, a good point but goes nowhere near explaining the precipitous drop in divorce – down one-third in just 12 years.

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