Changing Family Patterns - Divorce

Info taken from:

AQA Sociology Book One (Including AS Level) - written by Webb, Westergaard, Trobe, and Townend

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Changing Patterns of Divorce

Since the 1960s, there has been a great increase in the number of divorces in the UK: 

  • The number of divorces doubled between 1961 and 1969, and doubled again by 1972
  • The upward trend continued, peaking in 1993 at 165,000

Since then, numbers have fallen somewhat, however still stood at 118,000 in 2012 (about six times higher than in 1961)

As it stands, about 40% of all marriages end in divorce

About 65% of petitions for divorce now come from women. This is in sharp contrast to the past. E.g. in 1946, only 37% of petitions came from women.

Who is most likely to get a divorce?

  • Those who marry young, have a child before they marry or cohabit before marriage, and those where one or both partners have been married previously
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Changes in the Law

3 kinds of changes in the law have made it easier to obtain a divorce:

  • Equalising the grounds for divorce between men and women (1923)
  • Widening the grounds for divorce to 'irretrievable breakdown' (1971)
  • Making divorce cheaper through the introduction of legal aid for divorce cases (1949)

There are other ways that couples can/do solve the problem of an unhappy marriage, including...

1) Desertion (where one partner leaves the other but the couple remain legally married), 

2) Legal separation (where the court separates the financial and legal affairs of the couple but they remain married and cannot remarry)

3) 'Empty-shell' marriages (where the couple live under the same room, still married, but in name only)

This doesn't explain WHY people choose to take advantage of the freedom to divorce.

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Declining Stigma/Changing Attitudes

Previously, divorce was highly stigmatised; churches used to condemn divorce and refuse to conduct remarriages.

Mitchell and Goody note the rapid decline in the stigma attached to divorce. As stigma declines and divorce becomes socially acceptable, couples become more willing to resort to divorce as a way of solving marital problems.

In turn, the fact that divorce is now more common begins to 'normalise' it, and reduces the stigma attached to it. 

Rather than being seen as shameful, today it is more likely to be regarded as a misfortune

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Sociologists argue that religion is losing its influence and society is becoming more secular (not subject to or bound by religious rule).

As a result, the traditional opposition of the churches to divorce carries less weight and people are less likely to be influenced by religious teachings. 

Also, many churches have begun to soften their views on divorce, perhaps because they fear losing credibility with large sections of the public and with their own members. 

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Rising Expectations of Marriage

In the past, individuals had little choice in who they married, as they were often contracted largely for economic reasons, or out of duty to one's family. 

Fletcher (1966) argues that higher expectations people place on marriage today are a cause of rising divorce rates. This is linked to romantic love - the belief that marriage should be based on love. If the love dies, there is no justification for remaining married

Functionalists like Fletcher take an optimistic view, pointing to the continuing popularity of marriage, as most adults do marry, and there is a high rate of remarriage after divorce. 

Feminists argue this is to 'rosy' a view - the oppression of women within the family is the main cause of marital conflict and divorce, but functionalists ignore this as well as why it is mainly women rather than men who seek divorce. 

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Women's Increased Financial Independence

Improvements in women's economic position have made them less financially dependent on their husbands, thus freer to end an unsatisfactory marriage and support themselves after divorce. 

The proportion of women working rose from 53% in 1971 to 67% in 2013

Although women still generally earm less than men, equal pay and anti-discrimination laws have helped to narrow the pay gap

Girls' greater success in education now helps them achieve better-paid jobs than previous generations. 

The availability of welfare benefits means women no longer have to remain dependent on their husbands.

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Feminist Explanations

Feminists argue that women remain oppressed.

Marriage remains patriarchal, with men benefitting from their wives' 'triple shift' of paid work, domestic work, and emotion work. This has created a new source of conflict between husbands and wives, leading to a higher divorce rate

  • Hochschild - argues men's continuing resistance to doing housework is a source of frustration, making marriage less stable 
  • Bernard - argues women feel a growing dissatisfaction with patriarchal marriage. She sees the rise in divorce is evidence of women becoming more confident about rejecting patriarchy
  • Single-Rushton - found that mothers who have a dual burden are more likely to divorce than non-working mothers in marriages with a traditional division of labour

Cooke and Gash found no evidence that working women are likely to divorce. They argue that this is because working has now become the accepted norm for married women.

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Modernity and Individualisation

Individualisation Thesis - idea that in modern society, traditional norms (e.g. remaining with a partner for life) lose their hold over individuals. As a result, each individual becomes free to pursure his or her own self-interest. 

Beck and Giddens argue this makes relationships more fragile, as individuals become unwilling to remain with a partner if the relationship fails to deliver personal fulfillment. 

Instead, they seek what Giddens calls the 'pure relationship' - one that exists solely to satisfy each partner's needs. This results in higher divorce. 

A rising divorce rise 'normalises' divorce, strengthening the belief that marriage exists to provide personal fulfillment. 

That women as well as men are now expected to work and encouraged to pursue their own individual career ambitions can cause conflicts of interest between spouses and contribute to marital breakdown. 

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Meaning of a High Divorce Rate

Feminists - "a high divorce rate is desirable; it shows women breaking free from oppression/patriarchy in the nuclear family"

The New Right - "a high divorce rate is undesirable - undermines marriage/the nuclear family & thus social stability; creates an underclass of welfare-dependent female lone parents who are dependent on the state and leave boys without the adult male role model that they need"

Functionalists - "a high divorce rate is simply the result of people's higher expectations of marriage today; the high rate of remarriage shows people's continuing commitment to the idea of marriage"

Postemodernists/ Individualisation Thesis - "a high divorce rate shows that individuals have the freedom to choose to end a relationship that no longer meets their needs. They see it as a major cause of greater family diversity"

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Meaning of a High Divorce Rate (cont.)

Interactionists - aim to understand what divorce means to individuals. Morgan argues that we cannot generalise about the meaning of divorce as every person's interpretation is different. Mitchell and Goody found one interviewee described the day her father left as the best day of her life, whereas another said that she had never recovered. 

Personal Life Perspective - "divorce can cause problems, such as financial difficulties, yet Smart argues that divorce has become 'normalised' and that family life can adapt to it without disintergrating. Rather than seeing divorce as a major social problem, we should see it as justs 'one transition amongst others in the life course'"

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