Divorce in the UK


Divorce is not a modern concept. The ancient Greeks allowed divorce, with a magistrate deciding whether the reasons given for wanting the divorce were sufficient.  The Romans also allowed divorce.  However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was regulated more by ecclesiastical authority than civil authority. By the 10th century the frequency of divorce had been greatly curtailed by the influence of the Christian church, which considered marriage a sacrament instituted by God.  In England, although divorce, as known today, was generally prohibited after the 10th century, actions allowing the separation of husband and wife and annulment of the marriage were well-known. What we would call a legal separation was termed “divorce a mensa et thoro” (divorce from bed-and-board). The husband and wife physically separated and were forbidden to live or cohabit together; but because the marriage did not end, the husband had a continuing duty to support his wife alimony. In 1533 the refusal of the Pope to grant a Papal Dispensation allowing Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon effectively led to England breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome.  Prior to this because the church regarded marriage as a sacrament it was impossible to get a divorce without permission from the Pope, who rarely granted a divorce decree. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries there was great uncertainty surrounding divorce and separation, for example the pre contract ground of nullity (annulment) was abolished in 1540 but revived in 1548. In 1602 Archbishop Bancroft stated that the ecclesiastical courts could not grant a divorce, i.e. dissolve a marriage absolutely. From that time on, until 1858, those who wanted a divorce had to petition parliament by a private bill, which was extremely expensive.  Ecclesiastical courts could grant legal separations, but these did not permit either partner to remarry. From 1858 a new court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was established, which became part of the High Court in 1875 in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division.Our modern law of divorce was enacted in 1969 (The Divorce Reform Act). From this time the sole ground of divorce was irretrievable breakdown of marriage, which must be proved by one of the following facts, adultery, unreasonable behaviour, living apart for two years (where both partners consent) and living apart for five years.  For more detailed advice about current divorce laws contact Divorce Aid -www.divorceaid.co.ukDivorce records began in 1858, when 24 divorces were recorded.  The number of divorces gradually increased until 2005, when the divorce rate began to drop.


Number of Divorces
1858 24
1898 508
1938 6,250
1958 22,654
1978 143,667
1998 145,214
2003 153,490
2006 132,562

It has been speculated that the reason for the drop in the divorce rate is that the number of marriages has also dropped.  2005 saw the lowest number of marriages taking place since records began. We can only speculate on why the divorce rate has risen so much but the increase would appear to be on a par with the increase in women’s independence.  Women no longer ‘need’ a man to support them and are less likely to tolerate unreasonable behaviour.  In addition there is no stigma attached to being a divorcee these days.  Is this a good thing or does it make us less committed to marriage?One thing the statistics don’t show is how many couples that live together split up.  It has been said that couples that live together are more likely to break up than married couples but there are no statistics to prove this.  I’m sure no one enters into marriage thinking that it won’t last but when things start to go wrong how much effort do couples put into working things out?  You loved each other when you got married so it must be worth trying to save the marriage.  The first step is to seek help from an organisation such as Relate – http://www.relate.org.uk   Before people get married they should be sure that they are doing the right thing.  It is amazing how many couples do not discuss basic things such as whether they want children, their ambitions and their attitude to money.  Some things cannot be resolved, if one person wants children and the other doesn’t it is almost inevitable they will split up.  If one person is a risk taker and the other isn’t then disagreements could arise.  Communication is the key throughout a relationship.  Make sure that you know each other well before making a commitment and that you either agree or have worked out how you will settle your differences.  Don’t just concentrate on the present; think about how life changes (such as having children, promotions at work, redundancy, illness, committing to a mortgage together) will affect you.  Imagine being with your partner in five, ten, twenty, fifty years from now. 

If you cannot work out your differences then do reflect on where the relationship went wrong.  Statistics show that more second marriages are ending in divorce (1 in 5 in 2006).  It doesn’t matter who has initiated the break up of a marriage, both parties should reflect on what went wrong in the marriage so that they don’t make the same mistakes if they marry again.  Do you have any bad habits?  Do you go for the wrong ‘type’?  Do you even know what qualities you are really looking for in a partner?  Most importantly – do you love yourself?

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Filed under Communication, Divorce, Relationships

One response to “Divorce in the UK

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