Western Mail, 21st December 2012

Divorce rates have fallen back to levels not seen since the 1970s according to newly-released official figures.

The data shows that two fifths of marriages in Wales and England will end in divorce. The last time the numbers divorcing was as low was in 1974.

Last year, 117,558 couples formally ended their unions, but this marks a fall of 1.7% on the figure for 2010 when 119,589 marriages were annulled or dissolved, according to the Office for National Statistics.

A breakdown of the figures found 10.8 married people in every 1,000 legally separated last year, compared with 12.9 people in every 1,000 in 2001.

Campaign group the Marriage Foundation said the it meant divorce rates are now back to the levels in the 1970s – and argued that those couples now choosing to marry are taking the decision to get married more seriously.

Analysis of Office for National Statistics figures – based on marriage, divorce and mortality data for 2010 – shows an estimated 42% of marriages end in divorce, compared with 45% in 2005.

The ONS figures reveal divorce rates are highest among men and women aged between 40 and 44.

But they show a “general decline” in divorce since 2003.

Elizabeth Saxby, associate solicitor at Welsh firm Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, said she thought both last year’s rise and this year’s fall could be due to the recession’s impact on families.

She said: “People who are feeling the pinch, if perhaps your relationship is a bit rocky, if you didn’t have the spare cash for luxuries, that might cause people to split up.

“Now with the recession ongoing, the pressure of negative equity, people might be holding off from splitting. Making two homes, that’s really hard if there’s no money in the home, so people might be holding on, especially if there are children, waiting until they’re back in positive equity and there’s money they could split for a bond on rented property.”

She said people may be less likely to rush into marriage these days, compared to shorter engagements in the past, meaning they are less likely to then split up.

Ms Saxby said: “I think a wedding is so expensive that often you find that people are cohabiting for a long time. These people are unlikely to get divorced, they already know all the downfalls before they get married.”

Harry Benson, communications director of the Marriage Foundation, said: “The longer term trend in divorce rates remains downwards. After peaking in the 1990s, divorce rates are very definitely back at 1970s levels.

“This has nothing to do with fewer people getting married and everything to do with the way couples who do get married are taking it increasingly seriously.

“Even though divorce makes us focus on the vulnerability of marriages, we must not forget that getting married remains by far the best guarantee of a successful relationship. Married for life remains the norm. Successful unmarriage is the exception.”

The number of couples officially ending their marriages went down between 2004 and 2011, with the exception of 2010 when the rate went up.

The decrease in divorces is consistent with a decline in the number of marriages up to 2009, which the ONS admitted could be due to the increasing number of couples choosing just to cohabit, the ONS said.

“The increase in 2010 could have been associated with the economic climate following the 2008-09 recession,” the ONS said.

“Two competing theories exist relating to the effect of an economic downturn on the number of partnerships dissolving.

“One theory suggests that recession could contribute to a rise in partnership break-ups because of increased financial strain, changes in employment and related lifestyle changes. Social research in Britain has shown that unemployment and downturns in the housing market may be associated with family instability.

“In addition some individuals may believe they will get a more favourable divorce settlement if their income is currently low.”

When it came to children, almost half (49%) of couples divorcing last year had at least one child under 16. There were 100,760 children aged under 16 whose parents divorced in 2011 – a drop of 31% from 2001. Of these, more than a fifth (21%) were under five and 64% were under 11.