What Influence do Children Have on Divorce?


A number of striking trends have emerged in UK marriage and divorce data over the last 50 years. The latest information released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2014 provided data to 2012 prompting a flurry of analysis early on.

Marriage and Divorce - Recent Trends and a Child's Influence
Interesting trends were noted in relation to a wide range of marriage data such as the change in the number of people getting married year on year (+5.3%), the declining influence of religion on the type of marriage ceremony (70% are now civil marriages whereas over 60% were religious in the mid-1960s), trends in co-habitation prior to marriage (88% in 2011), the age at which most people get married (25-29) and, most recently, the numbers of same-sex couples getting married (1,409 between 29 March and 30 June 2014).

Commensurate with the marriage data is of course the data on divorce. Again there are a huge variety of attention-grabbing statistics relating to the total number of divorces in a year (118,140 in 2012, well below the mid-1990s overall peak of over 165,000), the timeframes in which divorce takes place (over half of divorces occur in the first ten years), the number of divorces in the year as a percentage of all married couples (1.08% in 2012) and the estimated total number of marriages that will end in divorce (42%) over the long term.

Given the striking influence that divorce has on children, it is surprising that there has been less mainstreams analysis of the effects children have on divorce.

What Influence Might Children Have on Marriage and Divorce?

When married couples with children do divorce, it is not uncommon for their children to mistakenly think they had something to do with it, which can cause a host of emotional difficulties. However, the underlying reasons for divorce can be varied and often have nothing to do with children themselves; for instance, 14% occur because of adultery.

On the positive side, there are indications in the 2012 data that having children might actually prevent divorce or at least prolong marriages for enough time so that less damage is done when children are still very young. The chart below shows the percentage of divorces that occurred between married couples with children in 2012 related to the age of the oldest child at that time.

Divorces in Couples with Children
It is particularly notable that the lowest numbers of divorces occur within the first 5 years of the birth of the eldest child (14.87% combined). The numbers of divorces are then stable when the ages of the eldest child range from 6-10 inclusive (averaging 4.66% across those ages and making up 23.29% combined). When the eldest children reach the age of 11, divorces steadily increase for each additional year of age, with the most dramatic increase after the eldest child is in adulthood.

The percentage of divorces after the eldest child has become an adult (13.53% of total divorces for those with children in 2012) perhaps indicates that couples are prepared to maintain their marriage until the eldest of their children reaches adulthood.

The binding nature of children in marriages is given even greater credence when the percentage of couples divorcing without children of any age is considered together with the above data. The pie chart below shows that those without children of any age made up 39.2% of divorcing couples in 2012.

2012 Divorces


It does appear that children can provide a binding effect on couples and hold marriages together, especially when children are very young. The figures are particularly interesting when one considers that around 50% of marriages end within the first 10 years, with divorces peaking between years 3 to 6. Although the start of marriages and having children are unlikely to coincide, it is also interesting to note by comparison that only 38.16% of divorces with children happen within the first 10 years of the birth of the eldest child.

While prolonging an unhappy marriage may not always be the optimal solution for all families, the negative effects of divorce on children are well documented. In some ways it is encouraging to think that parents are willing to hold back their differences for some time in order to enable their eldest child to reach adulthood before they separate.

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