The phenomenon of easy divorce is a relatively recent one. Previous generations imposed very severe restraints - social, legal and financial, on couples seeking to divorce or separate. This outlook was underpinned by a greater religious belief and conviction than that which generally pertains today. The Church regarded marriage as a sacred institution, in which couples vowed to stay together, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…till death us do part”. There was an overwhelming consensus that marriage was a lifelong commitment, although not everyone shared the religious perspective that marriage was a sacrament. Those who separated or divorced were subject to social ostracism and stigma which, although gradually relaxed, still remained strong into the 1960s.
Prior to the Divorce (Matrimonial Causes) Act 1857 it was not legally possible to divorce, except by means of a private Act of Parliament. In the century preceding the 1857 Act there was an average of only two divorces a year throughout the country, confined to the very rich and determined. The main aim of the 1857 Act was to cheapen and simplify procedures to make it more accessible to the rising middle classes. It allowed civil divorce through the law courts, instead of the expensive and cumbersome process of a private Act of Parliament. Under the terms of the Act, the husband had only to prove his wife's adultery, but the wife had to prove her husband had committed not just adultery but also either incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. The Act also empowered a court to order a husband to pay maintenance to a divorced or estranged wife, and a divorced wife could protect her earnings from a husband who had deserted her. Upon divorce the children of the marriage became the property of the husband who could prevent his former wife from having any contact with them.
From a modern perspective it is easy to mock the assumptions behind the 1857 Act. It is based solely on the concerns of adults rather than the interests of the children. More obviously, it provided a grotesque double standard between men and women on adultery, and openly discriminated against women on the custody of children. However, the provision protecting a woman’s own money was clearly a step in the right direction as it allowed women to be treated as individuals in their own right, and not as mere chattels or appendages to their husbands. But it was not until the passing of the Married Women's Property Act of 1884 that women finally gained control over their own finances and property. The Infants Custody Act of 1886 made the children’s welfare the determining factor in deciding questions of custody, but even then the father remained the sole legal guardian during his lifetime. Following the 1857 Act the number of divorces per year gradually rose from about 100 in 1860 to over 500 in 1900, and continued at just above this rate until the First World War.
War proved to be another catalyst fuelling the increase in divorce, since the numbers increased to over 3000 in 1920, the majority filed by men, and many caused by their wives’ infidelity whilst they had been away. Although this figure dipped to about 2500 during the mid 1920s, it then continued to rise throughout the remainder of the inter war years to reach over 8000 in 1939. One factor contributing to this increase was the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act which allowed women to petition for divorce on the grounds of adultery alone, thus gaining the same rights as men. Other legislation introduced at this time lowered the costs of obtaining a divorce, and the Herbert Act of 1937 extended the grounds for divorce to include desertion, cruelty, prolonged insanity and habitual drunkenness. The Second World War provided another major stimulus to divorce, no fewer than 60,000 were granted in 1946. However, this figure fell back to an average of about 30,000 by the early 1950s and stayed below this level until 1963. Although the 1950s are seen today as a model of family stability compared with more recent years, it has to be faced that divorce during this decade was about five times higher than in the 1930s.
The Wilson government of 1964-70 is often quoted with pride by liberals for facilitating 'progressive' legislation on personal 'lifestyle' issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. As part of the liberalisation agenda, this period also saw the introduction of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act which was to have the most far reaching implications for family life in Britain. By the time of the Act divorce levels had climbed to over 50,000 a year, twice what they had been a decade earlier. The 1969 Act retained the existing grounds of adultery and desertion but crucially replaced 'cruelty' with the much less harsh term 'unreasonable behaviour', which has been interpreted broadly by the courts, thus allowing many couples a quick divorce. In addition the Act introduced new 'no-fault' grounds for divorce when the parties had lived apart for five years, or two years if both agreed to a divorce. Thus the basis for divorce became, in the wording of the Act, 'the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage'. As a result of the 1969 Act the level of divorces increased to nearly 120,000 in 1972, over four times higher than in 1962. Obtaining a divorce became less troublesome after the introduction in 1973 of the 'special procedure' which allowed divorce proceedings to be conducted by post. As a result of all these changes the stage was set for an explosion in divorce and family breakdown.