Second year · Sociology

What causes divorce?

There are many explanations for the long-term decline in marriage, which can also be applied to the divorce rate. Still viewed in the public discourse as a sign of moral decline, over a third of marriages now end in divorce in Western countries. Indeed, in the UK, approximately 45% of marriages are dissolved (ONS, 2008), and this trend has risen since the Divorce Reform Act of 1970. Individualisation, feminism, capitalism, cohabitation, priority of careers, separation of children and marriage, as well as the fact that marriage is no longer necessary for financial security, can help us understand what causes divorce. In a first part, we will analyse the morality aspect of the ‘decline thesis’ (Chambers, 2012, p.180) and how it is largely used in politics. Then we will aim to explain the individualisation thesis, and how divorce offers the opportunity for self-reflection in a risk society. Finally, we will explore the postmodern explanations of divorce, focusing on the increase of family diversity.


The adoption of more liberal and less restrictive divorce led to an increase in divorces (Ambert, 2009). Such laws reveal the normalization of divorce: divorce stopped being stigmatized and became more acceptable to the community. As a result of these cultural and legal elements, people are less committed to the institution of marriage and therefore more likely to resort to divorce as a solution to personal and intimate problems. Another notable factor is linked to the fact that being divorced has no impact on employment opportunities, which means that couples are less afraid of the consequences of divorce, and of resorting to it as a solution to an unhappy marriage.

   However, according to Morgan (2006), cohabitation, assimilated to a form of ‘serial monogamy’, constitutes evidence of a lack of morality in modern society. This concept is used by the New Right Conservative party and especially by David Cameron, who would like to see marriage rewarded through the tax system (Hayton, 2010).  It is often said that the family has become an outdated institution; high rates of divorce, cohabitation and births by single mothers are often used to justify this assertion. The reality is that the marital dissolution complicates but does not destroy family life completely. It however lessens the ability of many families to provide care and socialization of children and weakens intergenerational solidarity. Some of the functions originally assigned to marriage have been transferred to other socially accepted institutions like cohabitation, which means that the marriage has lost its necessity. Factors such as love, companionship and personal compatibility are at the heart of marriage, so if one of these factors weakens or disappears, the probability of divorce is important.


The Individualization thesis, exemplified by Giddens (1992) and Beck-Gernsheim (2002), assumes that the tendency to individualism, that began two centuries ago, led to a balance of rights rather than duties. In a risk society, divorce offers the opportunity for self-reflection, and new life experiences characterized by temporary relationships. Individuals must then construct their identities through the project of the self, linked to the sphere of intimacy (Chambers, 2012). When individualism is associated with the ideology of gratification, especially sexual and psychological, when people are encouraged to be happy and to make the most of life opportunities, the mindset of spouses with regard to their marriages is easily affected. Marriage is no longer considered as an institution which emphasises personal duties and guarantees the strength of mutual responsibilities, but is now based on the individual search for happiness, self-fulfillment and companionship not that different from friendship. Therefore expectations are more pronounced with regard to the marriage in terms of personal satisfaction. As Amato and DeBoer (2001) explain, in individualistic marriages, spouses feel that their marriage is valuable as long as it meets their personal development and self-actualization needs and progress. When the marital relationship is no longer satisfactory, the spouses feel justified in breaking up to look for new partners who can best meet those needs. Nowadays, family members spend more time apart than together (Ambert, 2009), because of the emphasis on personal happiness and self-realisation through a gratifying career and the pursue of leisure.

As a result of these trends, most Westerners have lowered their tolerance when their marriage does not meet their expectations in terms of personal development. Overall, while expectations of marriage are still high (Carter, 2010), couples are also less tolerant of the challenges that marriage entails and are less likely to make the necessary sacrifices. On the other hand however, it is worth noticing that the acceptance and the generalization of divorce procedures have made it possible for many women to leave abusive relationships in which they were forced to stay 40 years ago.


Finally, it is important to underline that there are not only negative and traditional analyses of divorce, like the ones we have seen earlier. Postmodern sociologists emphasise the growth of a diverse range of intimacies and fruitful household arrangements that refuse the label ‘families’ (Chambers, 2012). For instance, Living Apart Together (LAT) families, same-sex families, and the new relationships created with the New Reproductive Technologies (NRT) do not appear in the statistics although they are involved in the creation of intimate social ties, (but suffer from divorce as well as traditional, nuclear families). Postmodernity also highlights the range of structural agencies and external factors. Indeed, low income and poverty are risk factors for divorce because the financial stress which is a source of worry and grudge between the spouses. This may be due to the fact that this race towards materialism accentuates individualistic values that are incompatible with a healthy married life, which brings us back to the earlier discussed Individualisation thesis. Conflict Theory is a perspective that views society as groups that are struggling over power or resources (Schaefer, 2008). Conflict theorists are interested in why some people have so many resources while others have so few and how this is either being maintained or changed. They describe the divorce as the competition for resources and power within the marriage where both parties cannot come to an agreement. In addition, even if the consequences are serious, spouses still prefer to divorce.

The changing role of women is another important factor affecting the increase in divorce rates. Nearly 75% of divorce petitions are requested by women. This suggests that women are more unhappy than men in their marriages, which could be due to increased expectations, and/or to the refusal of the long-established distribution of household chores and of the traditional role of mother and housewife. The Feminist sociological view looks at the disparity between the genders in terms of women’s lower status in most societies. It asserts that gender inequity is the force that is at the centre of behaviour and the status quo. The employment rate of women has improved in recent years, increasing their financial independence and thus giving them the possibility to leave an unsatisfying relationship. Once divorced, women may also receive government benefits, and having a husband is no longer a need for financial security. Women have accessed equal rights and have proven over time that they have the potential and capacity to meet their needs. In addition, they are more focused on their jobs, spending less time in their relationship. These conditions increase the risk of infidelity and the possibility for new relationships.

There is a correlation between parental divorce and higher rates of divorce among children when adults. One study even shows that this happens especially when the marriage of the parents presented a low level of conflict; one possible explanation is that such parents divorce because they have mixed feelings toward marriage and they then pass the feeling on to their children (Amato and DeBoer, 2001). Personal reasons or explanations to justify a divorce such as alcoholism, domestic violence, adultery, “incompatibility” and “no more love” and “money problems” come from the socio-cultural and demographic factors mentioned earlier. In countries where marriage is embedded in a context of family solidarity, these reasons would be considered frivolous.

Functionalist authors, such as Murdock (1949), believe that the divorce rate has increased because couples have higher and higher expectations. Today marriages are based on mutual understanding, and self-realization which were minor criteria before. Therefore functionalist theory holds that the high divorce rate reflects the quality of unions, which affects the rate of remarriage of divorced persons to reform happy families. In a society in which divorce is more difficult to obtain and less acceptable, or in which the marriage is perhaps the only legitimate way of founding and maintaining a family or of ensuring economic security, the only reasons accepted for getting a divorce are bad treatment, abuse and abandonment. Therefore, before people decide to divorce for specific reasons, there must be a social and cultural climate that offers a legitimate structure to justify their reasons. Goode (1971) argue that secularization has led to a desecration of marriage, and the fact that the practical commitment takes precedence over the spiritual union means that it is easier to break it. Indeed, the study shows that 65% of marriages are without religious ceremony.


To conclude, divorce is a much more complex phenomenon than is generally believed. Besides, the statistics are difficult to understand and therefore often misinterpreted. There is nothing to support some predictions whatsoever, about a significant decline or growth of the divorce rate in the near future. While both divorce and remarriage are institutions for adults whose purpose is to separate the members of a couple who can no longer live together and to allow former spouses to form new relationships, as institutions, unfortunately they are not necessarily in the best interests of children, and divorce is not always a positive experience for adults either. Divorce is often accompanied by subsequent poverty or a substantial reduction in financial resources. In some European countries, especially Norway and Sweden, the social welfare compensates sufficiently enough, so that single-parent families headed by a mother have a poverty rate similar to that of two-parent families. In countries that have a fair distribution of income such as Canada, the US and the UK, the negative effects of divorce on children is less obvious. Studies also indicate that a considerable proportion of marriages ending in divorce could actually be “saved” or be happy, and that many of these former spouses are not happier after divorce. It seems that there are two types of divorce: one that stems from a truly unhappy marriage and another resulting from a low commitment to marriage (Ambert, 1989). Even if divorce has allowed a lot of spouses to start anew and has contributed to improving numerous dramatic situations, some divorces are unnecessary; it is certainly the case for serious unions that dissolve. Thus, it would encourage married couples living together to face the ups and downs of relationships. Family relationships change after the divorce and must be renegotiated over time.




Amato, P. and DeBoer, D. (2001) ‘The transmission of marital instability across generations: Relationship skills or commitment to marriage?’ Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1038-1051.

Ambert, A. (2009) Divorce: Facts, Causes, and Consequences. Contemporary family trends. Ottawa: Vanier Institute of the Family.

Ambert, A. (1989) Ex-spouses and new spouses: A study of relationships. Greenwich JAI Press

Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002) Reinventing the Family: In Search of New Lifestyles. London: Polity Press.

Carter, J. (2010) Why Marry? Young women talk about relationships, marriage and love. PhD thesis, University of York.

Chambers, D. (2012) A Sociology of Family Life: Change and Diversity in Intimate Relations. Cambridge: Polity.

Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. Cambridge: Polity Press

Hayton, R. (2010) ‘Conservative Party Modernisation and David Cameron’s Politics of the Family’. The Political Quarterly. Vol. 81 n° 4, pp. 492–500.

Office for National Statistics (2008) ‘The proportion of marriages ending in divorce’. Population Trends 131 Spring. Available at:–131–spring-2008/the-proportion-of-marriages-ending-in-divorce.pdf  (Accessed: 18/02/15)

Morgan, P. (2006) Family policy, family changes: Sweden, Italy and Britain compared. Civitas

Murdock, G. (1949). Social Structure. New York: MacMillan.

Schaefer, R. (2008) Sociology: A brief introduction (8th ed.) New York, NY: McGrawHill.


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