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Divorce Trends and Patterns in the Western World: A socio-legal overview


  • Tony Fahey

    (School of Applied Social Science, University College Dublin)


This paper provides a general overview of trends and patterns in divorce in the present-day western world, focusing especially on the interaction between legal and behavioural aspects of union dissolution. The account is written from a sociological rather than a legal perspective. Its purpose is to provide sociological background and context for an assessment of trends in the legal regulation of couple breakup. It first provides a brief outline of trends in divorce rates in industrialised countries over the past half century, highlighting both the overall upward shift which occurred and the varied timing, pace and extent of that shift between countries. It then turns to a number of aspects of the interaction between law and behaviour that are associated with these trends. The first aspect is the import of the law itself as a possible influence on union stability, particularly the question whether the wave of liberalisation of divorce law that occurred in most western countries between the 1960s and 1980s might have contributed to the rise in marital breakdown that emerged at the same time. A related issue is the role of various forms of de facto and legal separation as alternatives to divorce for those exiting marriage, a question which is relevant to both the methodology of measuring marital breakdown and substantive concerns about the range of possible legal responses to union dissolution. A further topic the paper takes up also bears on what the law on union dissolution entails, as it concerns the de-institutionalisation of marriage represented by the growth of non-marital childbearing and cohabitation and corresponding change in what can be counted as fragile unions, which in turn raises challenges for the state’s role in regulating the process and consequences of union instability. This topic also points to the prominence of social policy as an element in state regulation of family life since welfare entitlements and maintenance arrangements arising from union fragility have regulatory impact and contribute to blurring the boundary between marital and non-marital family forms. The social gradient in union instability – how it varies by the socio-economic standing of couples – is also relevant to this issue since the balance between family law and welfare entitlements as points of reference for separating couples is likely to vary as we go from the top to the bottom of the social scale.

Suggested Citation

  • Tony Fahey, 2013. "Divorce Trends and Patterns in the Western World: A socio-legal overview," Working Papers 201320, Geary Institute, University College Dublin.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucd:wpaper:201320

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    More about this item


    Divorce; marital dissolution; families; socio-legal;

    JEL classification:

    • J12 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Marriage; Marital Dissolution; Family Structure

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