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Can the rise in the divorce rate during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s be explained by legal reforms which made it easier to get divorced?

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Introduction

Can the rise in the divorce rate during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s be explained by legal reforms which made it easier to get divorced? Adam Ford The number of divorces per thousand married couples in the UK rose from 2.1 to 12.8 between 1961 and 1988 (Office for National Statistics). The dramatic growth rate has received considerable interest from sociologists, who have postulated many theories on what has caused this seismic shift in the nature of family life. This essay will consider those theories, after detailing the legal reforms that have coincided with the increase. Finally, it will assess the degree to which the rise in divorce rates can be explained by divorce law liberalisation. Since World War II there have been three main changes in legislation which have made it easier for couples to divorce. The Legal Aid and Advice Act (1949) 'provided financial help to those unable to meet the cost of divorce' (Esher College, 2001), but rates remained steady throughout the 1950s. ...read more.

Middle

For Fletcher (1966), and Dennis (1975) couples had higher expectations of marriage than previous generations. Fletcher claimed they anticipated a 'close, intimate and intense' relationship, and if they did not achieve in their first marriage, they would look for a new partner. Dennis proposed that modern marriages are fragile because: '...in so far as companionship, a close, durable, intimate and unique relationship with one member of the opposite sex becomes the prime necessity in marriage, a failure in this respect becomes sufficient to lead to its abandonment.' These arguments, however, do not consider the dilemma that married couples with children face in such situations. The marriage may be no longer personally satisfying, but they have to consider the effect divorce would have on the children. Hart (1976) focused on the status of women within society, and the 'opportunity structures' that she claims have made a single motherhood a viable option. The introduction of Legal Aid has made it easier for women to afford divorce proceedings. ...read more.

Conclusion

Even so, most divorces occur within the first ten years of marriage, and as both partners usually lived for far longer than that after marriage, even a hundred years ago, the theory's significance is minimal. There is no doubt that successive Acts of Parliament have made it easier for individuals or couples seeking divorce to have their marriages legally terminated. The 1969 Divorce Reform Act increased the grounds for divorce, and the 1984 Matrimonial and Family Practice Act meant marriages could be ended sooner after they had began, but these seem to have had little long-term impact on a divorce rate which was already growing dramatically. Far more important, it seems, were the effects of increasing expectations of marriage (Fletcher), the nature of modern marriage (Dennis), increasing female financial independence (Hart), and the 'secularisation of society' (Wilson). That the number of divorces per thousand married couples in the UK rose from 2.1 to 12.8 between 1961 and 1988 was more to do with changes in society than laws. The legal reforms, far from causing an increase in divorce, simply reflected society's demand for the painful and protracted process to be made easier for all concerned. ...read more.

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