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SociologyExchange.co.uk Shared Resource
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SociologyExchange.co.uk Shared Resource

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  • 1. Marriage, Cohabitation and Divorce 1The Rising Divorce RateOne of the most startling changes in the family in Britain in the last century has been the general and dramatic increase inthe number of marriages ending in divorce, with similar trends found in many Western industrialized countries. Thenumber of divorce rates rose from 27,000 in 1961 to around 167,000 by 2005; during the 1960s the number doubled, andthen doubled again in the 1970s. Britain has one of the highest divorce rates (number of divorces per 1,000 marriedpeople per year) in the European Union. About 40% of new marriages today are likely to end in divorce, and, if presentrates continue, more than one in four children will experience a parental divorce by the time they are 16.Try and mindmap as many reasons for the rising divorce rate as possible:Divorce StatisticsDivorce statistics are presented in 3 main ways: • The total number of divorce petitions per year (the number of people applying for a divorce but not necessarily actually getting divorced) • The total number of decrees absolute granted per year (the number of divorces actually granted) • The divorce rate (the number of divorces each year per thousand married people in the population)Divorce statistics must be treated with considerable caution, and assessed against changing legal, financial and socialcircumstances, if misleading conclusions about the declining importance of marriage and the family are to be avoided.The increase may simply reflect easier and cheaper divorce procedures enabling the legal termination of already unhappy‘empty shell’ marriages (where marital relationship has broken down but no divorce has taken place) rather than a realincrease in marriage breakdowns. It could be that people who in previous years could only separate are now divorcing aslegal and financial obstacles are removed. Divorce statistics only show the legal termination of marriages. They do not show: • The number of people who are separated but not divorced • The number of people who live in ‘empty shell’ marriages – many couples may want to split up but are deterred from doing so by their roles as parents • How many ‘unstable’ or ‘unhappy’ marriages existed before divorce was made easier by changes in the law and changing social attitudes towards divorceThese points could mean either that divorce figures underestimate the extent of family and marriage breakdowns or thatrising divorce rates only reflect legal changes and do not represent a real increase in marital instability.
  • 2. There are 2 broad reasons for the increase in the divorce rate: changes in society which have made divorce easier andcheaper to get; and changes in society which have made divorce a more practical and socially acceptable way ofterminating a broken marriage.Changes in the law as a reason for the rising divorce rateIn your group, find out about the following divorce laws which have occurred in the past century: Policy or Law Description of what it didThe Matrimonial Causes Actof 1857The Matrimonial Causes Actof 1923The Legal Aid and Advice Actof 1949The Divorce Law Reform Actof 1969The Matrimonial and FamilyProceedings Act of 1984The Family Law Act of 1996Look over these Laws and suggest why they could account for the rising divorce rates
  • 3. Changes in society as a reason for the rising divorce rateIn your group, find out about the following changes in society which have occurred in the past century: Change in Explain how it can cause rising divorce rates societyThe changingrole of womenRising Functionalist writers such as Parsons and Fletcher argue that the divorce rate has risen becauseexpectations of couples (especially women) expect and demand more in their relationships today than their parentsmarriage or grandparents might have settled for. Love, companionship, understanding, sexual compatibility and personal fulfilment are more likely to be the main ingredients of a successful marriage today. The growing privatisation and isolation of the nuclear family from extended kin and the community have also meant that couples are more likely to spend more time together. The higher expectations mean couples are more likely to end a relationship which earlier generations might have tolerated. This functionalist approach suggests that higher divorce rates therefore reflect better quality marriages. This view of the higher expectations of marriage is reflected in the fairly high rate of remarriage among divorced people. In other words, families split up to re-form happier families.GrowingsecularizationChanging socialattitudesThe greater The greater availability of and more effective contraception has made it safer to have sex outside ofavailability of, the marital relationship, and with more than one person during marriage. This weakens traditionaland more constraints on ‘fidelity’ to a marriage partner, and potentially exposes relationships to greatereffective, instability.contraception
  • 4. The growth ofthe privatisednuclear familyThe reducedfunctions of thefamilyIncreasing lifeexpectancyVariations in divorce rates between social groupsWhile divorce affects all groups in the population, there are some groups where divorce rates are higher than theaverage. Teenage marriages are twice as likely to end in divorce than those of couples overall, and there is a highincidence of divorce in the first five to seven years of marriage and after about ten to fourteen years (when the childrenare older or have left the home). The working class, particularly semi-skilled and unskilled, has a higher rate of divorcethan the middle class. Childless couples and partners from different social class or religious backgrounds also face a higherrisk of divorce, as do couples whose work separates them for long periods. The rising divorce rate therefore does notaffect all groups of married people equally, and some face higher risks of divorce than others.Getting you thinking...1. Suggest reasons why the following groups might be more ‘at risk’ of divorce than other groups in the population: • Teenage marriages • Childless couples • Couples from different social class or religious backgrounds2. Suggest reasons why women are more likely to apply for divorce than men

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