The media is fond of whipping up emotions about the state of marriage and divorce. Every emerging trend tends to be scrutinised as possible evidence to support often wildly contradictory arguments, for example, that “marriage has become irrelevant” or “marriage is the new cool;” that “people can’t afford to get divorced because of the economy” or “narcissism is driving divorce rates higher.”
Time for a cold shower in the form of the statistical facts about marriage and divorce in Australia.
Marriage rates relatively steady for the past 60 years
The number of people getting married each year, per thousand of the population, has remained comparatively steady. Marriage rates were around 7 per 1000 for most of Australia’s history, with a peak during the Second World War, when troubled times saw marriage rates spike at 12 per 1000. Since then, figures returned to their long term average, trending downwards since the 1980's to around 5.4 people per 1000 by 2010 and 5.2 by 2014.
Yes, 5.2 per 1000 is a fair bit lower than 7 per 1000, but given the profound changes our society has experienced over time, what strikes us most about these figures is the enduring significance of marriage, through both good times and bad.
Interestingly, the percentage of couples who lived together before marriage in 1975 was 16% but in 2004 it was 75.5% and by 2014 this had risen to 79.4%. How does that statistic correlate with de facto couples?
One third of marriages end in divorce (38% in 2014)
One in three marriages ends in divorce, a figure which has been relatively stable for decades. The number of divorces increased dramatically after 1975, when the Family Law Act was promulgated. Since then, divorce rates have declined steadily, from 2.7 per 1,000 estimated resident population in 1994 to 2.0 in 2014. WA can be the exception to the rest of Australia and have a higher rate of divorce. Why that may be calls for speculation. One explanation may be the number of FIFO workers in WA. The long absences and ebbing and flowing economic times can be destructive of family life, particularly if there are children.
American journalist Claire Cain Miller (The New York Times 2014) made a point about marriage and divorce in America which I would say holds true in Australia too:
“Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970's and early 1980's and has been declining for the three decades since.”
What happens to the statistics about those couples who choose not to divorce? The current filing fee for a divorce in the Family Court of Western Australia and Family Court of Australia is $845 (note: in certain circumstances a reduced fee of $280). Many people do not immediately seek a divorce or even contemplate that step for many years and sometimes; if at all.
The rise of de facto relationships
Perhaps the most noteworthy trend of all has been the increase in the number of de facto relationships over the last 25 years. In 1986 5% of couples lived in de facto relationships and by 2014 around 16% of couples do. This is a larger percentage shift than the increase in number of people who live together before marriage.
In short, whatever the ups and downs of any particular set of statistics, or the latest trends set by celebrities and ‘indicators’ in opinion columns and blogs, marriage remains a stable social institution in Australia. We can observe that around two out of three people who marry will never need to concern themselves with the details of divorce. But for the one in three who do, we’re here to help make it as civilised and painless as possible. In the meantime let’s see what the Census brings!