Divorce

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.

Copyright S-cool

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.

The experience

Divorce involves a number of transitions in lifestyle and outlook. The following six overlapping dimensions of divorce have been identified:

  1. The emotional divorce: Increased tension between partner and loss of an intimate relationship. This is usually instigated by one partner.
  2. The legal divorce: The grounds on which the marriage is ended. Most divorces are still based on matrimonial offence. This may be a result of our adversarial legal system. Some professionals want to see the development of family courts, which encourage negotiated settlements.
  3. The economic divorce: The division of wealth and property. Both partners and children are deprived of material resources. Gibson (1982) found few women receiving maintenance on a regular basis; housing problems are also common and adequate welfare advice is essential.
  4. The co-parental divorce: Child custody and visiting. The husband usually loses the parental role. Hitche11 (1985) suggests that in the UK, 25-30% of children lose contact with one parent very soon after separation.
  5. The community divorce: Alterations in friendships and other social relationships - both partners lose in-law kin, friends may take sides.
  6. The psychic divorce: Facing the demands of living alone, loss of social identity and status. Divorced women seem more prone to depression, sleeping and eating problems; divorced men tend to lead erratic and chaotic lives.

Essay-style Questions

  1. Item

    The term 'the family' seeks to refer us to a norm. This norm pictures the family in terms of a typical life cycle. It progresses from unattached young heterosexual people, to couples to marriage, the birth of children, raising children, the return to 'coupledom' then 'singledom' with the death of a partner.

    Clearly, this norm hides the considerable diversity that exists in family life. People might be homosexual, they might not get married, they might not have children, children might remain in the family home... Many of us will have more than one family through divorce and remarriage. Alternatives to the traditional nuclear family are increasingly socially acceptable and people are able to exercise choice over the sort of family they want to live in.

    Using material from the Item and elsewhere, assess sociological explanations for the diversity in family forms found in Britain today.

    (Marks available: 20)

    Answer

    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 1

    • Make sure you use material from the item and from elsewhere.
    • You need to explain.
    • You need to assess the explanations.
    • You are not being asked to simply list different types of family.

    What's in the item?

    Nature (types):

    Heterosexual/homosexual; married/unmarried; children/childless.

    Explanations:

    Social acceptance - (this is a bit vague, but you should be able to support this from your own knowledge). The idea of a norm - has this norm changed?

    Overall, the item is of limited use here. All you get is the idea of social acceptance and the possibility of developing the idea of a norm.

    Elsewhere?

    Explanations with examples:

    More Choice - our behaviour is not determined by society.

    Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy (1992). We form families because we want to.

    For example: organizational diversity concerning the domestic division of labour. Contraception means we can choose to not have children, or when to have them and how many to have.

    Chance/risk

    Beck (1995) - we live in a risk society. Things just happen to us. Divorce, death, remarriage, unwanted childlessness, etc.

    Demography

    We live longer so we are more likely to divorce, remarry etc.

    For example: Regional variations Eversley & Bonnerjea (1982) 'sun belt' families of the affluent south east, elderly retired live, in 'geriatric wards'. Inner city areas tend to have more lone parents, and ethnic minority households.

    Discourse

    Our own biographies will have an effect on the families we form. We are affected by our own pasts.

    Life course rather than life cycle

    The traditional approach considers the family as the unit of analysis. The life course approach takes the individual as the unit of analysis. It is clear than many individuals have differing family arrangements because of the circumstances of their personal lives.

    Technology

    Macionis & Plummer (1997). Reproductive technology enables new family relationships. Communications technology enables families to live in different parts of the world.

    Immigration/multiculturalism

    Mass immigration into the UK in the 1950's - mainly West Indians, 1960's mainly South Asians.

    For example: South Asians least likely to form single parent families. Black people most likely. Modood et al (1997).

    R. Oakley (1982) in a study of Cypriot families in Britain, found strong extended family ties.

    Material factors

    Increased economic independence of women. Consequences; more single women, more dual career households, more divorce, etc.

    Social Policy

    The existence of the Welfare State provides economic support for those in need. This makes possible the existence of many single parent households.

    For example: Class inequalities have widened since 1979 as a direct result of governmental taxation policy.

    Mark scheme:

    This is only a rough guide. Clearly, if you included everything mentioned in the QuickLearn you would score over 20 marks!

    Give yourself 2 marks for each explanation that is supported by an example.

    The assessment needs to consider which explanations are most important. For example:

    A statement or claim:

    Silva & Smart (1999) argue that there was drift towards more varied forms of family organization, based they argue on more freedom of 'personal choice'.

    Assessment:

    Certainly the decline of religion, and the increasing emphasis on individuality suggests that many more people feel free to choose the family lifestyle they would prefer.

    Give yourself 1 mark every time you use an evaluative phrase such as, it would seem that/on the other hand/as against this however/overall/provided you have linked it to a sociological claim regarding diversity.

    (Marks available: 20)

  2. Item

    The passing of the 1969 Divorce Law Reform Act in 1971 made the only grounds for divorce 'the irretrievable breakdown of marriage' thus guilt or innocence were no longer necessary considerations in divorce proceedings. Almost immediately there was a significant increase in the divorce rate.

    The rate increased again during 1984 following after an Act was passed that allowed couples to divorce after the first anniversary of marriage. In 1991, nearly 10% of all UK divorces granted occurred within the first two years of marriage. At 171,000 divorces, the 1991 figure was the highest recorded up to that date. A notable feature of recent divorce petitions is the number that is sought by women. Increasingly it is women who make the first move towards the divorce court.

    Using information from the Item and elsewhere, evaluate the assumption that there is a causal relationship between the increase in the divorce rate since the Second World War and changes in the law concerning divorce.

    (Marks available: 20)

    Answer

    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 2

    General

    • Make sure you use information from the item and elsewhere.
    • You must be clear about what a causal relationship is.
    • You must consider other explanations for the rise in divorce.
    • You must have an evaluation.

    What's in the item?

    • The 1969 Divorce Reform Act.
    • Irretrievable breakdown.
    • 1984 increased again - following an Act.
    • 1991 10% of divorces occur within 2 years of marriage.
    • Increase in divorces sought by women.

    There seem to be two examples of a change in law being followed by an increase in divorce. This seems to support the assumption of a causal connection.

    However, why are women seeking more divorces? And can you provide examples of an increase in divorce preceding changes in divorce law?

    Elsewhere?

    You can provide further examples of how the law might or might not be related to changes in the divorce rate:

    1. The increases in divorce have not occurred at a steady rate. For example there was a marked peak around1945. This was an effect of the ending of world war two.
    2. The 1950s were relatively stable. In the 60s divorce began to increase although there were no changes in the law. Since 1980 the number of divorces has only increased slowly.
    3. Removal of legal and financial barriers. Prior to 1857, divorce could only be obtained by Act of Parliament.
    4. In 1949, the Legal Aid and Advice Act provided financial help to those unable to meet the cost of divorce.
    5. The 1985, Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act reduced the time limit on divorce from a minimum of three years of marriage to one.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.

    You can provide other explanations for the rise in divorce.

    Changing expectations:

    Some researchers place the cause of increased divorce on higher expectations (Fletcher, 1966).

    Changes in women's social position:

    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.

    Changing social values:

    There is now considerably less social stigma and blame attached to divorce. Wilson (1966) argues that this reduction in stigma is a result of secularization - Demographic change.

    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 growing number of divorces after 10 years of marriage tends to support this view.

    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. The underlying focus is clearly the Financial condition of the marriage (Gibson, 1994).

    Mark scheme:

    Give yourself 1 mark For each one of the 5 points from the item that you mention, provided that you have made it clear that the information came from the item.
    Give yourself 1 mark For any other evidence of a change in law that might increase the rate of divorce.
    Give yourself 2 mark For any examples of a change in the divorce rate preceding an increase in the divorce rate.
    Give yourself 2 mark For each alternative explanation you offer for an increase in the divorce rate.

    Give yourself 4 points for an evaluation that:

    Concedes that clearly easier divorce can enable more people to divorce - thus the divorce rate increases.

    Argues that however easy divorce law becomes people will only divorce if they want to, not just because they are able to.

    Suggests that marriage is much less stable now because of changes in society rather than changes in the law.

    (Marks available: 20)

S-Cool Revision Summary

This Revision Summary applies to all of the Family topics...

Can You?

Describe the main ideas people have concerning what families 'ought' to be like.

Explain why it is that people have these ideas.

Explain the main sources of support for these ideas

Describe 'conventional' and 'de-regulated' families.

Can You?

Outline the way in which Action Theory and Post-modernism explain diversity.

List and describe the main types of diversity identified.

Explain the causes of diversity.

Explain the argument for continuity.

Can You?

Give a basic outline of the functionalist perspective on 'the' family.

List and demonstrate understanding of the assumptions made by functionalism concerning the family.

Explain why the assumptions are open to criticism.

Can You?

Explain the contributions made to research into the history of contemporary western families by:

  • Laslett.

  • Anderson.

  • Harris.

Give an account of the main findings and arguments concerning alleged changes in family structures brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Give an account of why functionalist accounts appear flawed.

Can You?

Identify the central issues concerning the nature/nurture debate as it applies to gender roles.

Identify the traditional approach to gender roles as outlined by Parsons, and give an account of the evidence provided by Parsons.

Understand the basis and background to the symmetrical family debate.

Understand the criticisms made of the symmetry argument.

Evaluate the implications of empirical studies of male and female domestic roles.

Can You?

Identify recent trends in divorce statistics.

Identify and give an account of the possible causes of the increase in divorce.

Explain what divorce statistics cannot tell us about contemporary marriages.

Patriarchy A system legitimates male domination.
 
Nature (naturalism) Naturally occurring, a part of the natural world.
 
Domestic Ideology The ideology that legitimates female domesticity.
 
Life cycle Viewing the family in terms of fairly predictable features from formation to dissolution.
 
Life course Looking at relationships formed by an individual in the course of their life.
 
Reconstituted family Families where at least one of the adults has a child from a previous relationship.
 
Single parent family Families headed by only one parent.
 
Same sex families Families headed by adults of the same sex.
 
Nuclear family A family consisting of two generations (parents and children).
 
Extended family A family consisting of either three generations (vertical extended) or two generations plus other kin such as uncles or cousins (horizontal extended).
 
Essential/non-essential functions Those tasks which need to be performed by families and those tasks formerly performed by families but now undertaken by other institutions.
 
Isolated nuclear family A nuclear family that has no ties of dependence and reciprocation beyond itself other than by choice.
 
'Fit' The idea that there is some sort of special fit between nuclear families and an industrialized society.
 
Geographic mobility Movement by people from one physical location to another.
 
Social mobility Movement by people from one level of the class hierarchy to another.
 
Achieved status A status that is 'earned' by the person occupying it.
 
Ascribed status A status that is 'given' for example, daughter.
 
Instrumental role Concerned with the material needs of the family - associated with the male role.
 
Affective role Concerned with the emotional and social needs of family members - associated with the female role.
 
Segregated roles The man and woman have separate and distinct family roles and social lives.
 
Joint roles The man and woman share the tasks required by family life.
 
Symmetrical Each side mirrors the other; applied to male and female roles in some families.
 
Dual career family A family where both the male and female have careers.
 
Legal Aid and Advice Act (1949)  
 
Divorce Reform Act (1969) Irretrievable breakdown.
 
Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act (1976) Applied in the County Courts and permitted courts to issue non-molestation and exclusion injunctions.
 
Domestic Proceedings and Magistrates Act (1978) Extends above powers to magistrates courts. However provisions only applies to married women.
 
Housing Act (1977) Made it the responsibility of local authorities to re-house certain categories of people-mainly families - providing they had not intentionally made themselves homeless. Act explicitly stated that women who had left a violent man should not be seen as having intentionally made themselves homeless and should be re-housed.
 
Stigma Spoiled identity.
 
R. and R.N. Rapoport Dual Career Families (1971).
 
R. Chester The rise of the neo-conventional family (1985).
 
P. Willmott Urban kinship past and present (1988).
 
Parsons The essential functions of the family.
 
Bales Experimental work with Parsons on instrumental and Affective roles.
 
Zelditch Cross-cultural data used by Parsons.
 
Kessler and Mackenna (1978) Family types ignored by Parson's idealized family.
 
Bowlby (1965) Theory of maternal deprivation.
 
Rutter (1972) Chief caretaker need not be mother, need not be female.
 
Laslett Statistical work on family size since the 16th century.
 
Anderson Study of Preston based on 1851 census figures.
 
Harris The idea that inheritance systems could be implicated in early development of industrialisation.
 
Willmott and Young Extended families in East London in the 1950's.
 
Bott 'The Family and Social Networks' (1957). Coined terms segregated and joint.
 
Willmott and Young 'The Symmetrical Family' (1973).
 
Rosser and Harris (1965) Growth of more companionate marriage.
 
Goldthorpe and Lockwood 'The Affluent Worker' (1967).
 
Rapoport et al 'Dual Career Families Re-examined' (1976).
 
J. Bernard 'The Wife's Marriage' (1972).
 
M. Maynard 'Contemporary Housework and The Houseworker Role' (1985).
 
Edgell 'Middle Class Couples' (1980).
 
J. Pahl 'Money and Marriage' (1989).
 
F. Divine (1992) Re-visiting the affluent worker town of Luton.
 
A. Oakley 'The Sociology of Housework' (1974).
 
Fletcher (1966) Increase in divorce a consequence of higher expectations of marriage.
 
Wilson (1966) Increased in divorce because of Secularisation.
 
Gibson (1994) Financial state of marriage is a good predictor of divorce.
 
Dobash and Dobash (1980) 'Violence Against Wives'.
 
Hanmer (1983) A study of community violence to women.
 
Abbott and Wallace (1990) 'Note the main trigger for violence is the male perception that a partner is failing in her duties.
 
Faulk (1974) Argued men convicted of abuse were mentally ill.
 
Schlegel (1972) Looked at 45 societies and showed that 75% of them permitted husbands to be aggressive towards their wives.

Introduction

Copyright S-cool

During this century, divorce in Britain has increased by more than 200%. Clearly, divorce is a good example of a public issue.

There is a discrepancy between the ideals of what marriage brings us as individuals and the reality of what marriage actually entails for many couples.

There are problems with the meaning of statistics. For example:

  • Can divorce statistics enable us to compare the institution of marriage now with marriages of the past?
  • What is the relationship between marriages that break down as opposed to break up?
  • What do the statistics tell us?

It is an answer, but not the only one to coping with marital discord: In other societies other options are pursued, so what factors persuade unhappily married couples in our society to opt for divorce? Divorce is only one indicator of marital breakdown. The others are:

Legal separation: The partners separate, but the marriage continues to exist. There are no reliable statistics available, as not all separations are formal, and recorded.

Desertion: One partner leaves the family. Again, reliable figures unobtainable, but Chester (1975) argues both separation and desertion are increasing.

Empty shell marriage: The couple live together but there is no love or affection.

There has been a large increase in divorce and these increases have been accompanied by, but not necessarily caused by, changes in the law, which have made divorce easier. Thus divorce in England and Wales more than doubled in There has been a large increase in divorce and these increases have been accompanied by, but not necessarily caused by, changes in the law, which have made divorce easier. Thus divorce in England and Wales more than doubled in 1971-1985 following the Divorce Reform Act of 1971. If present trends continue, it is estimated that four in every ten marriages will end in divorce (Gibson, 1994). However, the increases in divorce have not occurred at a steady rate. For example, there was a marked peak around 1945. This was an effect of the ending of World War II.

The 1950s were relatively stable. In the 60s, divorce began to increase although there were no changes in the law. Since 1980, the number of divorces has only increased slowly.

The remarriage rate presents one of the most striking trends in family patterns in the last 30 years. In 1961, remarriages constituted 14% of all marriages in the UK. By 1991, the proportion was 30% (Social Trends 1994). Divorce is also associated with single parenthood. A quarter of all children will witness their parents divorce before reaching the age of 16 (Gibson, 1994).

Cohabitation: By 1992 it was estimated that some 18% of unmarried men and women, aged 16-59 were living together (Social Trends, 1994). If these trends continue then the meanings of both marriage and divorce will have undergone important shifts.

In all these areas it is primarily the effects on women and children that have been the major focus of concern.

Copyright S-cool
Syndicate content