Towards understanding the reasons for divorce

Working Paper No. 20 – June 1999

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Social context of marriage and divorce

Any attempt to explain the reasons couples separate and divorce must take into account both the nature of marriage as an institution within a given social and cultural context, and its particular meaning for the individuals involved. Remarking that the dramatic increase in the lifetime divorce probability (from 10 per cent to more than 50 per cent in the United States and to 40 per cent in Australia since the 1960s) cannot be explained only at the personal or micro level. White (1990:904) aptly states: 'In addition to asking why some marriages are more likely to fail than others, we also need to examine changes in the social institutions that structure individual experience.'

Contemporary marriage and family relationships are formed and maintained in an environment of greater choice in how people can live their lives than has been possible for past generations (Lewis 1999; McDonald 1988). The social environment of marriage today encompasses the legal recognition of a variety of personal relationships and sexual behaviours, the removal of the social stigma of illegitimacy and divorce, the availability of effective contraception, the enactment of sex discrimination legislation to provide equal access for women to education and employment opportunities, and the availability of financial support for sole parenting (Cherlin 1992).

In such a society, individuals are not necessarily dependent on a traditional marriage or family structure to survive or to pursue productive lives (Cherlin 1992; Popenoe 1988; Chester 1980). Nye and Berardo (1973:500) argue that in an affluent society where men and women can earn higher incomes, or a welfare safety net can provide for the minimum needs of children and other family members: 'This type of society provides an alternative to unsatisfactory marriages.' Within the community, an ideological emphasis on personal growth, individual rights and choice may thus conflict with an ethos of responsibility, compromise and commitment (Bellah et al. 1985; McDonald 1988).

Contemporary expectations of marriage (Wolcott and Glezer 1989; Giddens 1992; Harris et al. 1993) place a high value on meeting the somewhat ambiguous desires for mutuality, intimacy, happiness and self-fulfilment, a more daunting task, perhaps, than fulfilling the more modest and rigidly defined expectations associated with traditional 'breadwinner husband' and 'homemaker wife' roles.

Such expectations, whether realistic or not, can be severely tested over the course of married life when couples are confronted with the reality of caring for children or elderly parents, managing work demands, paying bills and doing mundane household tasks. When these more ordinary events are compounded by employment insecurity, low income or illness, there can be added strain on the marriage (Karney and Bradbury 1995).

As Warwick Hartin (1988:10), the former executive director of the National Marriage Council of Australia (now Relationships Australia), has suggested: 'Whereas formerly marriages were held together by external pressures, economic necessity, and fear of social disapproval, now marriages stand or fall according to the strength of the emotional bonds between the partners.' Amato and Booth (1997:220) concluded that 'the threshold of marital unhappiness required to trigger a divorce' has declined over time.

Several researchers (Glenn 1998; Amato and Rodgers 1999) have observed a tendency for perceived marital quality to have declined over the past several decades, a phenomenon that they suggest is associated with increased expectations of marriage and favourable attitudes towards divorce.

Nevertheless, the structural aspects of today's environment (the impact of intensified pressures at work, insecure employment and income) in generating stress on family stability should not be overlooked (National Council for the International Year of the Family 1994; Amato and Rogers 1997; Morehead et al. 1997).