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What’s the divorce rate rise about?

The most recent figures available have shown that the number of people getting divorced in England and Wales has risen for the first time in a number of years. This seems to have confounded a lot of people: if you were watching breakfast TV on the day the figures were released you will recall they were already heralding another drop in the rates, so Bill and Sian looked a little foolish when this turned out not to be the case. Perhaps people assumed that divorce would carry on falling because of the continued recession, or because fewer people overall are choosing to marry (2009 showed the lowest rate since records began in 1850). In any case, the rise didn’t come as much of a surprise to us at CFLP. We’ve all been helping people through family change for a long time, and we’ve seen this pattern before.

It’s often the case that when recession first hits, there’s a drop in the divorce rates for a couple of years because the economic uncertainty and the difficulty of selling houses or shares to fund a settlement when the markets are at a low ebb means it makes sense for people to wait, if they can, until financial times improve. The problem is that people can only wait so long, and unhappy marriages rarely become more tolerable when money is tight. This means that inevitably there is a bit of a spike in the divorce rate in the second or third year after a crash, as people decide to press on regardless of the economic problems.

Harsh economic conditions are not necessarily bad divorce news for everybody, however. A historically higher earner may perceive that there are advantages in pressing ahead with divorce proceedings while out of work, or while his or her income is low. It may be easier to accommodate both parties if only a certain sector of the housing market has suffered a crash in the recession – for example, if (as is the case in Cambridge at the moment), the market for housing over a certain value has stayed buoyant and this includes the marital home, while prices have gone down in the mid-market into which both people might have to be rehoused.

The most interesting family law aspect of the recession, though, is its effect on parental relationships with children. When high-powered people are affected by redundancy, in our experience it tends to lead to a reassessment of what is important in life, and often a greater desire to spend time with the kids. Many people find they are given the chance to see what they have been missing by working so hard, and in our view this may be one of the drivers for the recent upsurge in shared residence orders made by the court in children cases after the parents separate. It’s possible that the recession may cause a generation of workers to move to flexible working patterns to accommodate family responsibilities, whether their families are together or separated. Time will tell. What do you think?

You can find interesting analysis of the marriage and divorce rates here on the Guardian’s Datablog.


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