Family Relationships Quarterly No. 19

AFRC Newsletter No. 19 – August 2011

Trends in couple dissolution: An update

by Lixia Qu and Ruth Weston

Patterns of couple formation and dissolution in Australia have changed significantly over a number of decades. Such changes represent a response to the interaction of many factors, including other life course changes, technological advancements, labour market and economic forces, and evolving social values and attitudes. In turn, trends in couple formation and dissolution contribute to social values and attitudes and to other family-related trends, such as fertility rates. It is important to monitor family trends, not only to understand the current circumstances of families, but also to gain insight into the future direction of changes, reasons behind them and their implications - all of which can feed into the shaping of proactive policy responses. This article updates trends in couple dissolution that formed the basis of an article that was published in the second edition of Family Relationships Quarterly (Weston & Qu, 2006), and includes additional information concerning the duration of marriages and differences in rates of relationship dissolution for marriages and cohabiting unions.

Divorce rates

The increase in the divorce rate represented one of the most spectacular family-related trends in the 20th century. Figure 1 depicts the number of divorces across the years and the crude divorce rate, that is, the number of divorces granted in a year per 1,000 resident population.

Prior to the Second World War divorce was rare. In the first decade of the 20th century the number of divorces recorded each year ranged from 300 to 400.

  • The crude divorce rate rose slightly in the 1920s to the mid-1940s and peaked at 1.1 in 1947. In fact, the number of divorces recorded in 1947 was the highest (8,705) during the first half of the twentieth century, partly reflecting the instability of hasty wartime marriages and the disruptive effects of the war on marriage. The rate then declined slightly until the 1960s, after which it began to rise substantially.
  • The rate soared to a peak of 4.6 divorces per 1,000 resident population when the Family Law Act 1975 came into operation (5 January, 1976), which allowed only one ground for divorce ("irretrievable breakdown" as measured by at least 12 months separation). This change led to the formalisation of some long-term separations and the bringing forward of some divorces that had been filed in previous years but had not been finalised.
  • Since then the crude divorce rate has mostly fluctuated between 2.5 and 3.0, falling in the mid-1980s, then rising, only to fall again during the last decade (from 2.8 in 1999 to 2.3 in 2009).

Another measure of the divorce rate is the number of divorces per 1,000 married women. These rates ranged between 10.6 and 10.9 in the late 1980s and gradually increased throughout the 1990s. The rate over the past several years has fluctuated between 12.0 and 13.0 divorces per 1,000 married women.

Figure 1. Crude divorce rate and number of divorces, 1901-2009 igure 1. Crude divorce rate and number of divorces, 1901-2009

Sources: ABS (various years) Marriages and divorces (Catalogue No. 3310.0).

Age-specific divorce rates, married men and women

A more detailed picture of the patterns of divorce is obtained by determining the rates of divorce for specific age groups. Figure 2 depicts the rates that were apparent in 2006.

  • Among married women, the divorce rate was highest for those aged 25-29 years while among married men, it was highest for those aged 30-34 years - a difference that reflects the fact that women tend to marry at a younger age than men.
    • In 2006, divorce was experienced by 18 in every 1,000 married men aged 25-29, by 19 in every 1,000 aged 35-39 years, and by just under 20 in every 1,000 aged 30-34 years.
    • During the same year, divorce was experienced by 20 in every 1,000 married women aged 25-29, 18 aged 35-39 years, and just under 20 aged 30-34 years.
  • Among married men and women in their mid-30s and older, the divorce rate declined progressively with increasing age.

Figure 2. Age-specific divorce rate by gender, 2006 Figure 2. Age-specific divorce rate by gender, 2006

Sources: ABS (2010), Marriages and divorces, Australia 2009 (Catalogue No. 3310.0).

Duration of marriage to divorce

Figure 3 focuses on divorces granted in four different years, and shows the proportion of divorcing couples whose marriages had lasted for less than 10 years, 10-19 years or at least 20 years. Here, the duration of marriage includes the period from separation to date of divorce.

  • For all four years examined, divorces most commonly occurred before 10 years of marriage (applying to 41-49% of all divorcing couples).
  • 31-33% of divorces occurred when the couples had been married for 10 to 19 years.
  • 20-28% of divorces occurred when couples had been married for at least 20 years.
  • Nevertheless, the proportion of marriages lasting fewer than 10 years fell during the most recent decades (from 49% in 1990 to 43% in 2000 and 41% in 2009), while the proportion of marriages lasting at least 20 years increased (from 20% in 1980 to 24% in 2000 and 28% in 2009).

The median duration of marriage at divorce was 12.3 years in 2009, up from 10.2 years in 1980. It should be noted that the median duration of marriage at final separation also increased from 7.5 years to 8.7 years during the same period.

Figure 3. Duration of marriage to divorce, 1980 to 2009 Figure 3. Duration of marriage to divorce, 1980 to 2009

Sources: ABS (various years) Marriages and divorces (Catalogue No. 3310.0).

The stability of cohabitation

Given that some couples live together outside a registered marriage (here called "cohabitation"), trends in divorce do not present a complete picture of relationship separation. Table 1 shows that cohabitating relationships are far more likely to dissolve than marriages. Here, attention is directed to the cohabiting unions which represent the first live-in relationship experienced by one or both partners.

  • Regardless of the period in which cohabitation or marriage began, the likelihood of a cohabiting relationship ending in separation within 5 years was three to five times the likelihood of a marriage ending in divorce within 5 years (25-38% vs 7-9%).
  • The proportion of marriages that ended in divorce within 5 years increased slightly over the period shown (from 7% of marriages starting in 1975-76 to 9% of marriages starting in 1994-95).
  • Similarly, the proportion of cohabiting relationships that ended in separation increased over the period shown (from 25% of cohabitating unions that began in 1970-74 to 38% that began in 1990-94).
  • However, for the entire period covered in Table 1 (approximately 20 years), the rate of separation among cohabiting couples increased to a greater extent than the rate of divorce among married couples.
  • It is not surprising that cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages, given that the circumstances surrounding cohabitation can be diverse (Qu & Western, 2001). For example, some couples may embark on cohabitation as a trial marriage or as a prelude to marriage and others may live together for practical reasons without strong commitment.
Table 1. Rates of relationship dissolution: Cohabitation versus marriage by period in which cohabitation or marriage began
Cohabitation a Marriage
Year began living together Separated within 5 years (%) Year of marriage Divorced within 5 years (%)
1970-74 24.9 1975-76 6.9
1975-79 30.9 1985-86 7.5
1980-84 33.4 1987-88 7.9
1985-89 33.3 1989-90 8.6
1990-94 38.2 1994-95 8.8

a Cohabiting relationships refer to first unions for one or both partners (based on HILDA Wave 1 data); the separation rate does not take into couples who went on to marry and then divorced subsequently.
Source: Qu & Weston (2008)

Those without partners

Together, trends in couple formation (outlined in Family Relationships Quarterly No. 1) and relationship breakdown influence the overall proportions of men and women who are partnered or unpartnered.

Figures 4a and 4b, which are based on analyses of the 2006 Census data, along with those conducted by Birrell, Rapson, and Hourigan (2004) using earlier Census data, indicate the proportions of men and women of different ages (below 50 years) who were living without a partner in 1986, 1996 and 2006.

Across all 5-year age groups shown (20-59 years), the proportion of unpartnered men and women increased between 1986 and 2006.

Given that men are usually older than women when they first cohabit or marry, unpartnered rates are considerably higher at younger ages for men than women.

Gender differences in unpartnered rates narrow with advancing age, and given the lower propensity for women to repartner at older ages, women in their late forties are similarly likely to be unpartnered as men of this age.

The rise in unpartnered rates for age groups under 40 years had slowed in the most recent decade (1996-2006). This is not the case for the two oldest age groups.

Figure 4a. Proportion of men who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2006 Figure 4a. Proportion of men who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2006

Sources: Statistics for 1996 and 2006 based on the 2006 Census, the 1986 data are from Birrell, et al., 2004.

Figure 4b. Proportion of women who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2006 Figure 4b. Proportion of women who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2006

Sources: Statistics for 1996 and 2006 based on the 2006 Census, the 1986 data are from Birrell et al., 2004.

In summary, patterns of couple dissolution have undergone a great deal of change. Although fairly stable over the past decade, the number of divorces per 1,000 marriages was lower in the late 1980s than more recently. While the median duration of marriage at divorce is about 10 to 12 years, the percentage of divorcing couples who were married for fewer than 10 years has fallen, while the percentage of those who were married for at least 20 years has increased. This trend can at least partly be explained by the tendency for couples to cohabit then separate. In the 1980s, many of these couples would have married directly. Trends in couple formation and dissolution have resulted in an increase in the proportion of Australian adults who are unpartnered.

References and data sources

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (various years). Marriages and divorces Australia (Catalogue No. 3310.0). Canberra: ABS.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2007). 2006 Census of Population and Housing (Catalogue no. 2068.0 - 2006 Census Tables). Canberra: ABS.
  • Birrell, B., Rapson, V., & Hourigan, C. (2004). Men + women apart: Partnering in Australia. Melbourne: Australian Family Association and Centre for Population and Urban Research.
  • Qu, L., & Weston, R. (2001). Starting out together: Cohabitation or marriage. Family Matters, 60,76-79.
  • Weston, R., & Qu, L. (2006). Family statistics and trends: Trends in couple dissolution. Family Relationships Quarterly, 2, 9-12.

Dr Lixia Qu is a Senior Research Fellow and Ruth Weston is Assistant Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.