THE BLOG

Shifting Grounds: Changing Society and the Reasons for Divorce

18/12/2013 12:03 GMT | Updated 15/02/2014 10:59 GMT

As a Family lawyer born in the early 1970s, I sometimes wonder how someone doing my job when I was born would regard the changes in society in the decades since.

What, for instance, would they think of the degree to which cohabitation has become something of a norm?

Four decades ago, around a quarter of couples lived together before going on to marry.

Yet the most recent statistics underline how cohabitation has become so much more socially acceptable that some 12.2 million unmarried couples in England and Wales live together - either with or without children - with many of those choosing not to marry.

The differences between now and the '70s are not confined to the nature or legal status of domestic relationships but how those relationships end.

I have recently been poring over data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the grounds for divorce, material which makes it possible to see subtle shifts in the reasons why spouses go their separate ways.

Those patterns provide hard numerical facts to back up evidence presented by the cases handled by myself and my colleagues in the Family department at Pannone of the impact which developments in the courtroom and in society at large have had on home life.

Several elements emerge, including how filing for divorce because of adultery is no longer as common as it once was. Only 20 years ago, it was blamed for one-in-four divorces. Now, it is the primary factor in less than one-sixth of cases.

On the other hand, complaints of unreasonable behaviour have steadily increased. It now accounts for almost half of all divorces.

Dig a little deeper and that rise contains, in itself, something of a startling nugget. Since 1974, the start date of the ONS's tranche of data, there has been a six-fold increase in the number of husbands granted divorces because of wives' unreasonable behaviour.

Of course, it is worth bearing in mind that claiming unreasonable behaviour can often be a means to an end for couples who want to divorce immediately and not wait until they have been separated for at least two years when they can issue a 'no-fault'-based divorce petition.

It is also a category which can span a wide range of conduct - from allegations of domestic violence to complaints that husbands or wives do not really appreciate or support their spouse.

I believe, though, that these statistics illustrate how the attitudes to divorce have changed in this country over the last 40 years or so and how women have become much more financially independent during that time.

There are now wives in well-paid jobs who are, therefore, less dependent on their husbands than in previous generations and, as a result, are simply more confident about leaving a marriage if they are unhappy and going off to do their own thing.

Furthermore, since a crucial divorce ruling went in favour of one wife, Pamela White, in the year 2000, divorce settlements for the financially weaker spouse have generally become more generous.

Divorce courts in England and Wales have also earned an international reputation for allegedly being 'wife-friendly'.

This means that even if wives who are not in such a strong financial position walk out of a marriage, they still believe that they are likely to be okay financially when it is legally brought to a close.

Together, these two scenarios can leave husbands with little option but to file for divorce on the grounds of their wife's unreasonable behaviour.

Putting the ONS' numbers in a proper social and legal context undermines what might be a simplistic reading that they suggest that wives are more badly behaved now than in previous generations.

In my opinion, they reflect a greater confidence among women and equality between spouses. That they might be expressed in divorce might be to some people's dismay, not least because divorce can be an unpleasant process for everyone involved.

However, allowing those husbands and wives who have come through a divorce to restart their lives from a more comparable position is arguably a position with which a Family lawyer from the early 1970s would regard as infinitely better than what might have been the case four decades ago.