Divorce rate – going up or down?


Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but they raise some interesting questions

Some interesting statistics have recently been released in the UK. According to an article in The Guardian, divorce rates amongst heterosexual couples are at their lowest since 1973. But is this evidence of marriages getting stronger and lasting longer? Or just proof that fewer couples are opting for the traditional walk down the aisle?

divorce statistics - divorce attorney cape town

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Statistics can be misleading, particularly when they show an aggregated rate. It is important to understand the trends and behaviours behind the statistics before drawing any conclusions. While the overall rate of divorce among opposite-sex couples is down (in the UK), so is the number of marriages over the same period. Without conducting a sophisticated statistical analysis, it’s hard to know if the proportion of divorce is down, relative to number of marriages, or if it is simply the actual number of divorces that has decreased, which would make sense in the context of fewer unions being sanctified.

One explanation for the decline in marriages could be a preference for cohabitation over traditional marriage, a trend that is more common amongst younger people. Interestingly, divorce rates in the UK in 2017 increased for men aged 45 years and over and for women aged 50 years and over, compared with 2015. These are the couples who married longer ago, when marriage was still the social norm for a couple in love. Now, as they age and perhaps see their children grow up and leave home, they are discovering their marriages are no longer fulfilling.

Same-sex divorce rate

It appears curious that the number of same-sex divorces in the UK tripled in 2017, compared to 2016. On closer examination this is entirely logical. Same-sex divorce has only been permitted for a very short period of time. As those marriages move past the honeymoon period, it is inevitable that some will break down. The total number of same-sex marriages is also tiny relative to heterosexual marriages, so the figures can appear distorted. It doesn’t take many divorces to cause the rate to triple. It will take some time before the statistics start to normalise and have any meaning.

Meanwhile, closer to home

In the South African context, divorce is on the increase, even while marriage is on the decrease, according to Stats SA. This makes sense. The majority of South African divorces are initiated by women, who have only recently begun to gain sufficient economic power and social agency to leave unhappy or abusive marriages. It is quite possible the divorce rate will continue to rise for a while before hitting a plateau and following the UK trend, as South African women collectively grow less financially dependent on their husbands and choose an alternative to a loveless marriage.

Civil union

Trends in the UK and Europe tend to emerge here fairly rapidly. However, sometimes South Africa is a trend-setter. The UK’s Supreme Court decided as recently as 27 June to legalise civil partnerships for heterosexual couples (previously only available for same-sex couples). Civil partnership between same-sex couples represented a legislative compromise with the religious bodies who were opposed to so-called “gay marriage”, but when same-sex marriage was legalised in 2014, the civil partnership statute was not removed, giving same-sex couples two legal partnership options, whereas heterosexual couples could only marry. This decision means that all couples, regardless of their gender composition, now have the same rights.

The situation varies around the world. Some jurisdictions removed civil unions from the statute books when same-sex marriage was legalised. Others recognise both, sometimes with minor differences. Here in South Africa, same-sex and opposite-sex couples can register their relationships as either marriages or civil partnerships, with no legal difference.

Divorce rate: on the increase

According to StatsSA, from 2013 to 2014 the registration of civil and customary marriages dropped by 4.9% and 12.5% respectively, but civil unions increased by 15.2%. It would seem that civil union offers an alternative to marriage for those who reject the traditional values of marriage – with its links to property and the subjugation of women – while still providing a legal framework for the relationship.


We’ve written about cohabitation and civil union before, and about the legalities surrounding dissolving them. It is very difficult to find statistics on cohabiting couples and rates of longevity or break-up, because, by the very “unofficial” nature of cohabitation, the data is simply not available. Furthermore, cohabitation can take different forms. Many couples live together before getting married. Some cohabit temporarily, that is they have no intention of making a permanent commitment to each other, and when the relationship ends it is not so much a tragedy as a natural evolution.

Ultimately, the type of relationship that is right for a couple is a personal choice. There are advantages and disadvantages in every scenario and each twosome must weigh up its own priorities and values in making the decision.

Breaking up is hard to do

It is said that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. When it comes to relationship breakdown, it might be true to say instead that all happy relationships are different, but each relationship failure brings the same pain. This is an over-simplification, but whether a relationship is governed by the laws of marriage, civil union, or a cohabitation agreement, or nothing, breaking up is painful. You can mitigate some of the pain by having an antenuptial or cohabitation agreement in place.

Contact us for more information

If you are thinking about formalising your relationship, whether through marriage, civil union, or cohabitation, make sure you understand the legal consequences of each structure and how they will affect you. Cape Town Attorneys Simon Dippenaar and Associates Inc. are Cape Town divorce attorneys (now ion Gauteng and Kwazulu Natal) and are experts in family law, including cohabitation. We’ll explain your rights and responsibilities and make sure your interests are protected. Contact Simon on +27 (0) 86 099 5146 or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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