From the drunken mothers in Hogarth's Gin Lane to the tabloid front pages of binge-drinking young women in our town centres, the relationship between women and alcohol has long been viewed as a source of moral panic. Now, or so we are told, excessive drinking by women is leading to an increasing number being divorced by their husbands. The Daily Mail reports that this now forms the basis of up to 1 in 7 divorces, and that the number of divorce petitions based on the unreasonable behaviour of the wife has tripled in the last few decades. BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour picked up the baton, speaking to a lawyer who claimed that this accounted for almost one third of divorces citing unreasonable behaviour. But how much truth is there to this claim?
Significantly, this claim does not appear to be based on any actual research based evidence, but instead from a trend identified by lawyers from their own experiences. Whilst any patterns noticed by individual lawyers can be of interest, it would be wrong to extrapolate that into some larger social trend without something more substantive in support, let alone claim it as fact.
Notwithstanding the lack of evidence, could the claims be true anyway? Unlikely. The number of divorces which cite unreasonable behaviour on the part of the wife is in total 1 in 7 of all divorces, or a third of all divorces initiated using this claim. This means that pretty much every divorce that is initiated by a husband claiming their wife behaved unreasonably would be connected to excessive drinking, which is simply not credible.
But is there any truth to the implication that women are generally behaving worse, leading to the breakdown of their marriage? Figures provided by the Office for National Statistics show that the number of divorces obtained by husbands against their wives on this basis did in fact triple between 1980 and 2014. However, the number of fault based divorces, i.e. citing adultery or unreasonable behaviour, remained level throughout this period. What did change is the proportion to which adultery and unreasonable behaviour were cited, with the latter rising from 17% to 75% of fault based petitions, with a corresponding fall in claims of adultery. Again, however, it is not credible that women are far less likely to have affairs but more likely to behave "badly" than they were 40 years ago.
In reality, the basis of the divorce tells us little about whom, if anyone, was primarily responsible for the breakdown of the relationship, or why it broke down. As the recent Court of Appeal decision of Owens v Owens has highlighted, in which a woman was denied a divorce from her husband, one party in a divorce must blame the other if they wish to begin divorce proceedings without waiting at least 2 years. Whether alleging adultery or unreasonable behaviour, in many cases, a couple will agree or even make up examples just so that they can get divorced without having to wait. Others will feel that what is claimed in the petition is neither fair nor accurate.
The interim research findings of 'Finding Fault?' a study funded by the Nuffield Foundation and led by Professor Liz Trinder of Exeter University, provides a timely indicator of just how prevalent this is. As part of their research, a national survey was conducted which found that 43% of respondents to a fault-based divorce reported that the claim that was used was not closely related to their view of the 'real' reason for the divorce. This echoes a 2015 YouGov survey commissioned by Resolution, the national association of family lawyers, which found that 27% of those who cited adultery or unreasonable behaviour admitted that this was not the real reason for the divorce, but the easiest option.
As the interim report notes, there is no requirement to prove the truth of any claim contained within the petition to the court, unless opposed, and even then any rebuttal made by the respondent to the petition will be ignored unless a formal application to defend the divorce is made. It is clear, then, that any claim to find larger social trends based on the contents of the divorce petition should be taken with a large pinch of salt at best. This is particularly the case when some of the examples given included women drinking whilst having lunch with colleagues or networking in the evenings, activities which, for some reason, don't tend to give rise to the same concerns when it involves men.
None of that is to dismiss the very real damage that alcohol addiction can cause to entire families. But we should recognise these kinds of stories for what they are; a moral panic stemming from a flawed and outdated system which requires separating couples to attribute blame where none may be present.