Causes and explanations

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Causes and explanations

Cause could mean the formal grounds (legal grounds), or the reasons the partners provide, or the larger causes to be found in major shifts or trends in the wider social structure. Sociologists focus on the last of these.

Removal of legal and financial barriers: Prior to 1857, divorce could only be obtained by Act of Parliament. The grounds for divorce were based on matrimonial offences; this remained the basis for divorce until 1971. In 1971, The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 replaced blame with irretrievable breakdown.The 1985 Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act reduced the time limit on divorce from a minimum of three years of marriage to one. However, legislation cannot be seen as a cause of higher divorce rates, it has simply made divorce easier to obtain if couples want it. Clearly, some couples are simply taking advantage of more liberal divorce laws, although it should be noted that changes in the law often reflect prior changes in public opinion, for example, steadily rising levels of divorce in the 1960s, prior to the Divorce Reform Act. In 1949, The Legal Aid and Advice Act provided financial help to those unable to meet the cost of divorce.

Some researchers place the cause of increased divorce on higher expectations (Fletcher, 1966). And given the rates of remarriage it is not the institution of marriage, or the ideology picturing lifelong happiness that is rejected, but an insufficient partner. Dennie (1984) regards western style marriages based on romantic love as fragile because they are only held together by emotional ties.

Causes and explanations

Better rights under divorce law, increased job opportunities and the provision of state financial support can all be seen as contributing to enhancing the bargaining position of women in conjugal relationships. Women have, in the past 100 years, achieved many new rights in terms of property, the vote, employment and education, and the rise in divorce may reflect this shift in the position of women within society and make them less willing to accept an unsatisfactory marriage. Indeed it may have changed altogether the boundaries of the "acceptable" within marriage. In 1946, 45% of petitions were by wives. In 1986-1990, 73% of petitions were by wives.

There is now considerably less social stigma and blame attached to divorce. Wilson (1966) argues that this reduction in stigma is a result of secularisation, the decreasing influence of religion in contemporary society. Less than 50% of marriages now involve a religious ceremony, and even those that do might not be based on a religious institution for religious reasons. The idea of a lifelong marriage blessed by God is clearly less significant now than previously. Attitudes towards the effect of divorce on children may have shifted. It had been considered in the past that couples should remain together for the sake of the children. Now it is more commonly thought that children are better off if parents split up so that they are not exposed to constant parental conflict.

Anderson (l983) has pointed out that lifelong marriage in the past often lasted a relatively short time. Marriage was often late and life expectancy was short. The highest risk groups for divorce are; teenage brides, couples who had children early, couples with 4 or more children, local authority tenants, and couples with relatively low income (Kiernan, 1989). The underlying focus is clearly the financial condition of the marriage (Gibson 1994). Clearly, part of the explanation for higher divorce rates among those married as teenagers has to be other contributory factors. A study by Ineichen (l977) of 179 marriages in Bristol suggested that teenage marriages were often linked to other factors associated with a higher risk of divorce such as manual employment, poor housing, and sharing accommodation with relatives.