Do changes in the divorce rate indicate a change in the success of marriages? Discuss using examples of reasons for divorce and explain some trends in divorce over both short and long term periods.

There is tension within sociology between discussing the nature and success of a relationship within marriages and marriage as a social institution responding to wider social forces. Perhaps it is an institution where the private trouble and public issue come to sharp realisation (as in C. Wright Mills). The notion of an empty shell marriage is a comment on the success or otherwise of marriage, and it would be expected that if divorce is difficult then there are bound to be many empty shell marriages. The same sociological issue is expressed in an era of easier divorce. For Anthony Giddens, late modernity is a period where the flux of individualism takes place, and this is reflected in the emotional content of marriages. The stress is on enjoying a special relationship, and this is bound to be temporary as the relationship fades. He calls this confluent love, and it is the love that determines the rapidity of the process of marriage and divorce, rather than external conditions affecting the institution of marriage and the rapidity of love. He contrasts this with romantic love, which meant each person in the marriage getting the right partner in a form of mutual projection and wholeness one with the other. This uniting and aiming for a successful marriage despite its equalitarian aims hid the reality of the sexual division of labour. Romantic love, focussing on the person, will try to extend a marriage longer, unless the other person becomes someone other than seemed to be the case at the time of marriage. The other basis of marriage is duty and obligation, which will extend a marriage too so long as they exist (for example, obligation to be parents to growing children until they leave home). So considering a successful or happy marriage has to mean a marriage of a positive relationship and substance, although this is a difficult broad definition to achieve, given that a marriage may have as its purpose a kinship function especially if familial and effectively arranged or constrained by social parameters.
The contrast made between divorce statistics and the success or happiness of marriage is to compare the increase in divorce and the condition of marriage itself at the same time. A number of long term trends have shown divorce increase. As divorce has increased, does it show that marriage has become more unsuccessful and in decline over the long term? Perhaps a higher divorce rate shows a stronger state of marriage, so that those marriages which continue are at least successful marriages. In the short term, in the 1990s, when people were more able to divorce, the divorce rate falling might have its own message.
Long terms trends include changes in the law. Before 1857 divorce was only possible by Act of Parliament. It meant it was restricted to the people who had access to Parliament: the wealthy and powerful. Therefore many unsuccessful marriages had to continue. There would be very many empty shell marriages, when the love had gone but the formal marriage continued. Perhaps some marriages could be annulled, meaning always void, but any visible relationship or consummation of the marriage would make annulment impossible. Over time the divorce law has liberalised, so that reasons for divorce were expanded and access to legal funds to get a divorce became easier. In 1969 the Divorce Reform Act allowed for the first time guiltless irretrievable breakdown to be a reason for divorce, and in 1996 the Family Law Act did not even require evidence of breakdown (it was not fully implemented).
Therefore, although divorce rose, marriages were not becoming more unsuccessful, but rather marriages that continued to exist would be, in general, evidence of bieng the opposite of empty shells - though the existence of a marriage cannot itself indicate its relationship.
Before 1857 marriage was very definitely for life, and reflected the life-long nature of its sacrament. The sacred marriage could not be undone. Once consummated, it was fixed. However, a second reason for more divorce over the long term has been the secularisation of marriage, and a breaking down of the Christian belief for staying married. Rather than stay in an unsuccessful sacred marriage, as was the social obligation, marriage has become more of a contract. Of course some people maintain Christian and other religious beliefs against divorce.
Over the long term women have become more economically independent and this means they no longer have to stay in a marriage that does not serve their emotional and practical needs. Economic independence has allowed women the potential of happier marriages. Even the welfare state has allowed a greater possibility of ending an unsuccessful marriage.
With few economic options, women have in the past put up with abusive marriages, being in arenas of physical and mental oppression. With more options available women can escape.
However, in the 1990s divorce fell. The reason was the decline in first marriages, which has happened for some 40 years. First marriages are more vulnerable to divorce. In the 1990s, when people could divorce easily, fewer first marriages meant fewer divorces. People cohabit and test their relationship more, although these relationships do break up readily. Even if they do, and even if they are in effect a first marriage without being married, they do not impact on the divorce statistics. It means marriages that do happen are more robust. Second marriages happen by those who have road-tested marriage, who have experience of the pitfalls and know the limitations of marriage better. These marriages, with perhaps a stronger sense of companionship, last longer.
Some examples give insight into marriage and success. Most women divorce men for unreasonable behaviour (Social Trends 30, for 1997). This gives practical evidence for the latter two long-term trends quoted above. It shows women getting out of violent or situations or those of neglect, where there is negative emotion.
The biggest reason men divorce is for women having an adulterous relationship (Social Trends 30, for 1997). This does not necessarily mean that more women than men commit adultery. It may well mean that women still reluctantly tolerate a man having an affair whereas a woman is not tolerated by her husband when she has an affair. The importance of such reasoning is that success and statistics cannot be equated, as statistics do not easily reveal gender imbalances around negative events in marriage. Perhaps women continue to tolerate unsuccess in marriage as they have done in the past, whereas men have been freer to remove their offending partner.
Modern society may be more stressful, and perhaps the increase in the nuclear family has taken away support structures for marriages. Nevertheless divorce means if anything a continuation in the position of marriage, that the marriage is working, whereas this cannot be said so confidently about the existence of marriages in the past.
Every marriage is individual and represents a series of private troubles that couples tolerate or deal with through divorce. The children are their children, the loss of love is theirs. At a higher level, however, the easing of divorce law has allowed marriages that do last to be the successful ones. Stigmas against divorce (such as religious) that kept marriages going have now eased, and economic circumstances have allowed women more freedom. So the public issue is not one that more divorce has indicated more unsuccessful relationships, but that unsuccessful relationships can be released from marriage.
In the end, families continue after divorce, because there are many structures to functioning families. Marriage also continues, given the popularity of remarriage. A remarriage suggests development in the expectations of marriage, that knowing the pitfalls of failure a further marriage is more likely to be successful and even happy (as statistics show a lower proportion of second marriages end in divorce).
The statistics on divorce cannot reveal the success of relationships in the past. Nevertheless the ease of divorce must indicate the success or otherwise of marriage and the continuing place of marriage in society.

Giddens, A. (1991), Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Giddens, A. (1994), The Transformation of Intimacy, Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mills, C. Wright (2000), afterword Gitlin, T., The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Adrian Worsfold