According to the New Testament, divorce was given by God as a practical remedy because of hardness of heart.
“He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
In Scripture divorce is allowed only in the instance of a sexual misdemeanour, when the marriage bond is broken by fornication or adultery. Where this occurs it is a sin against God, but it is also a sin against the innocent party, the family and the wider community and will have repercussions in all those areas. In the pages of the Bible, adultery is often spoken of in the same terms as murder. This demonstrates its very serious nature. The whole life of the nation is affected where adultery and sexual sin is widespread.  Divorce is to be seen as a remedy in that the unrepentant guilty party is put out of the marriage. Overlooking sexual misdemeanours within marriage thus destroying the central bond within society redefines the nature of marriage and the nature of the society in which we live. From the above passage we see that the one put out of the marriage because of sexual sin cannot re-marry without repeating the sin of adultery. This passage also implies that the injured party in the divorce having not broken up the marriage because of his/her sin is free to remarry. In Israel, David, through misusing his position as king and neglecting his duties was sorely tempted watching Bathsheba bathe. He succumbed and subsequently became both a murderer and an adulterer. Yet he shows us that where there is the opportunity for true repentance, there is also the occasion for restoration. Again, if we look at divorce in this biblical way not only do same-sex liaisons re-define marriage, but also the reform of the divorce laws, extending under what circumstances divorce can take place, indicates a change in an understanding of marriage within our nation and society.

Changes have taken place in England, but they have been gradual. Divorce was not legalised in any general sense until 1857. Before this date, an Act of Parliament was required to bring about a divorce. The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act permitted divorce for the innocent spouse in the case of adultery, but in 1937 the grounds for divorce were extended to include desertion, cruelty and incurable insanity. In 1969, the Divorce Reform Act went further still and the grounds for divorce were also to include unreasonable behaviour. These changes effectively provided for divorce without fault claiming ‛irretrievable breakdown’. After this, few respondents contested petitions for divorce. The number of divorces then rose quite sharply, but this was possibly because some couples had already decided to divorce previous to this date and as a result there was something of a backlog. There was a gradual increase in the number of divorces from 1974 onward reaching an all time high in 1993 of 180,000 throughout the UK. During the nineties, the annual divorce rate stayed at around 13 per 1000 of the married population. The Family Law Bill of 1995 viewed divorce as ‛a process over time’ with a minimum period of one year being allowed. At this point ‛no fault’ divorce became effective and was passed in both Houses of Parliament on a free vote.

Given the ease with which a divorce can now be obtained, Britain today has the highest divorce rate in the European Union with all the negative social fall-out to be expected. Although the number of divorces throughout the EU remains steady at around an average of 1.8 divorces for every 1000 people, in Britain the number is 2.8 per 1000. If we look at the figures simply in terms of every 1000 married couples in England and Wales, the figure is 10.8 per thousand. 42% of all marriages are now expected to fail. If overseas marriages are included, the percentage is a little lower at 39%. Younger people are the most vulnerable. At some point within the first ten years of marriage is when most divorces take place. Older couples are less likely to divorce. Among those married for more than 20 years only one in five divorce and beyond 40 years of marriage only one in a hundred.

In the absence of effective birth control before the ‛swinging’ sixties, couples took far more care before committing themselves to a marriage. No one wanted to risk becoming tied into an unsuitable relationship due to an unwanted pregnancy. After this time, particularly after the 1969 divorce law reform when a divorce became much easier to obtain, birth control encouraged unmarried cohabitation. Couples would often slide into an entangled relationship that became increasingly difficult to end. Inertia and the arrival of a baby pushed them into marriage. Such marriages were certainly more fragile because of the initial lack of commitment.

For the greater part of the twentieth century births outside marriage remained at about 5%. The number began to rise in the 1960s and by the year 2000 it had quadrupled. Births to mothers with no partner or husband have remained much the same, 19% of all births being born out of wedlock. However, single parent families have increased and to a great extent this has been due to the greater number of divorces. There have been other social changes: fewer people getting married, more choosing to cohabit before or instead of marriage resulting in more children being born outside marriage. About 55% of divorces throughout the nineties involved a child under the age of 16 and 25% of parents divorced in 2000 were under the age of five. 70% were ten or younger. It all means that 36% of children born to married parents are likely to have to live through their parents’ divorce before they reach 16 years old.

Divorce rates are lower than they were a decade ago, but this is largely due to the fact that more couples choose to cohabit rather than to marry, growing by around a third to 2.9 million . The numbers of first marriages have fallen drastically since 1961 when they were at around 300,000, whereas in 2000 they were just 180,000. Against this, the number of re-marriages has increased from 19,000 for men in 1961 to 75,000 in the year 2000 and from 18,000 to 36,000 for women. Marriage and re-marriage is being increasingly preceded or even replaced by cohabitation as this has become more socially acceptable. These unions tend to be fragile, lasting on average just two years before breaking up or being turned into marriage. Of cohabiting couples not marrying only about 18% survive beyond ten years, as against 75% among couples who do marry. Co-habiting unions are much more likely to break up especially where there are children. Yet a world without marriage is precisely the kind of world so many progressives and liberals strive for, a world however, fraught with misery and confusion. Non-binding relationships between a man and woman encourages an unravelling of all other relationships and society as a whole begins to fall apart.

There are understandably no records of how many cohabiting couples with children separate each year, but the number is likely to be high. 30% of all births in England and Wales are to unmarried parents living at the same address, most of whom are likely to be co-habiting. It is known that one in three cohabiting couples split up before their first child’s fifth birthday. Among married couples the figure is one in ten. It is evident from these statistics that more children will be affected by the separation of cohabiting parents than from divorce.

The most devastating effects of a divorce are undoubtedly those experienced by the children involved. The numbers of children affected by divorce have risen in recent years from approximately 82,000 under sixteen in 1971 to 100,000 in 2009. One in three children in the UK will experience parental separation before the age of 16. Around half of all the couples divorcing in 2010 had at least one child under 16, one fifth of the children were under five years old.

In 1961 the proportion of households made up of a mother and father with dependent children was 38%. By 2001 this number had gone down to 23%. During the same period the number of single parent households had tripled from 2% to 6%. Including the 6% in step-families, 80% of all children live in two-parent families, 18% with single mothers and just 2% with single fathers. However, in 1972, 92% of all children lived in two parent families. It has been suggested that as many as 40% of all mothers at some point will spend time as a single Mum. Also interesting is the fact that far more people are living on their own. The number of one person households has almost doubled in these same years from 14% to 30% and by 2021 this is expected to rise to 31%.

The 2011 census shows that as a direct result of the separation and divorce of parents almost 400,000 children in England and Wales under sixteen are now dividing their time between two homes, not counting of course children at boarding school or of those with parents having a second home. This seems to be most prevalent, as one would expect, in wealthier families.

As the sixties gave way to the seventies and the eighties, the traditional view of the family was becoming increasingly denounced as outmoded. Feminists and other social rebels spoke of ‛freedom of choice’ and ‛equal respect for all types of families’. Many were claiming that women and children had no need of men, indeed that they were better off without them. There was really no problem of family breakdown, families were just changing. Paramount for the children was the personal happiness and self-fulfilment of their parents. It was said that claims that children suffered from the effects of separation and divorce were grossly exaggerated. Couples who ‛stayed together for the sake of the children’ were scorned. Yet clearly, not all were willingly involved in this new state of affairs, some women were abandoned, some men forced out of the family home.

The social consequences of these changes have been wide-reaching. Widespread divorce has had effects far beyond the immediate family involved. Family breakdown has contributed to an increase demand for housing. A split family usually needs two houses rather than just one. The cost of a divorce can now reach £25,000 or usually more, forcing a third of all divorcing couples to sell the family home when they split. A report in 2000 estimated that the identifiable welfare costs of family breakdown amounted to something like £8.5 billion. More recent figures released to the newspapers suggest total costs are now likely to be in the region of £46 billion. Rising crime levels and drug abuse exacerbate family problems. Of 60,000 children currently in care, 98% are there as a direct result of family breakdown.

Divorce, separation, birth outside marriage, cohabitation, extramarital sexual intercourse, and subsequent one-parent families all rapidly grew alongside these changes. Of course, there were many who welcomed these new freedoms. However, what must be stated loudly and clearly is the universally recognised fact that the children of parents not following traditional family values, or not taking on personal, active and long-term responsibility for the children they have brought into the world, are tremendously disadvantaged and their chances of leading a successful life are considerably diminished. Evidence shows that children from such a background generally tend to die earlier, suffer more sickness, do less well at school, exist at a lower level of nutrition and comfort, suffer more unemployment, are more prone to deviance and crime, and are highly likely to continue the cycle of irresponsible and unstable parenting.

Way back in 1998, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report: Divorce and Separation: The Outcomes for Children. The evidence they present shows that broken families statistically have a higher risk of:

  1. Being in poverty and poor housing
  2. Being poorer when they are adults
  3. Behavioural problems
  4. Performing less well at school
  5. Needing medical treatment
  6. Leaving school or home when young
  7. Becoming sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age
  8. Depressive symptoms
  9. High levels of smoking and drug use.

No subsequent research has shown that there has been any change for the better. Based on all empirical evidence, there is a clear relationship between the increase in broken marriages and a corresponding social breakdown. The increase in the break-up of families and the high number of divorces has brought nothing but sorrow and heartache to our nation. More recent studies such as those carried out by the Institute for the Study of Civil Society in 2002 have shown in far more detail that these effects are still very much with us.

The all round evidence demonstrates that the traditional family of a married father and mother remains the best environment in which to bring up children. For huge numbers single mothers, fathers and children, the family lacking a father has brought only poverty, heartache, ill health and a propensity to mental instability and breakdown, poor employment prospects and a life on welfare, and an overall unstable lifestyle. Politicians profess support for the family, but their chatter amounts to very little. They do nothing in terms of tax relief to help those living decent conventional family lives. Most of their ideologies, when it comes to it, dehumanise and debase marriage.

Today more than 50% of the adult population is married and nine out of ten youngsters under the age of 16 want to get married. In a survey of 2,000 students aged 13 to 15 only 4% thought that marriage was old fashioned and not relevant. Throughout Europe surveys have shown that 85% to 90% of adults disputed the notion that marriage is outmoded. 

David W. Norris