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Australian divorce rate lowest since 1976 when `no fault’ splits introduced

Next May, 39-year-old Jill Robertson will marry Craig Jerrom, 46, her partner of nine years.

They are the archetype of the modern newlyweds: well into their 30s or beyond, they have “two mortgages, two cars and two kids”. It’s just that, up until now, they never got around to actually tying the knot.

“It’s a kind of a little girl fantasy that I’d get married – wear the dress and have a party,” she says. “I’ve got some sort of traditional notion that if you’ve got children you should be married. “Despite all the talk we hear about the decline of the traditional family, a new book argues that there remains something powerful about marriage.

There is a lot of talk about the decline of the traditional family. Indeed, after remaining steady for more than a decade, the rate of marriage fell last year to a record low. Nevertheless, a new book argues that there remains something powerful about the institution and the role it plays in our lives.

“For decades, we have heard that marriage is on the wane, in Australia and across the secular West,” sociologist Dr Genevieve Heard argues in the introduction to Family Formation in 21st Century Australia.

“It may be more accurate to claim that Australians are spending less time within the institution of marriage. This is because Australians are marrying later and are not necessarily remaining married for life … It is difficult to argue that marriage is on the wane when the institution remains the dominant partnership model for adult Australians.”

The concept of marriage as an optional life event one can move into and out of without diminishing the institution itself varies hugely from the traditional ideal, but the data suggests that this is what marriage is today. The data also suggests that, in this role, marriage remains a powerful social force.

Last month, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews gave voice to the traditional ideal when the bureau of statistics announced the divorce rate  was the lowest since no-fault divorce was introduced in 1976. Mr Andrews’ response was that the rate was still too high.

“Stable families are the cornerstone of a cohesive and functioning society and we need to ensure that our nation’s greatest asset, our children, have the greatest possible opportunities to reach their full potential,” he said.

The problem is that the number he was referring to – the divorce rate – does not measure the stability of families. Families today take many forms and, while the risk of breakup exists in every family, it’s only the ones that get married at some point that contribute to the rate of divorce.

At any rate, the comment seems anachronistic. According to the bureau of statistics, fewer than half of all divorces today  – 47.7 per cent – involve families with young children. Like the divorce rate, this is a post-1976 low.

Married people are also splitting up older than ever and are divorcing from marriages that have lasted longer than was the case 10 years ago. Divorces initiated by a single party – whether husband or wife – are a smaller share of total divorces than has ever been the case, with a higher proportion than ever before being sought jointly. The 47,638 divorces granted last year are near the post-1976 low posted in 2008.

All these statistics hint at more stable families, if indeed that was  what they were measuring. But, according to Dr Belinda Hewitt of the University of Queensland, these trends do not take account of “the rise of unmarried, or de facto, cohabitation as an alternative or ‘stepping stone’ to marriage”.

And still, though many of the benefits once reserved for marriage can be got without the wedding, there remains a pull. Unmarried relationships are simply not as strong as married ones, Dr Hewitt’s research says.

“Overall, cohabiting couples have lower levels of dedication to the relationship with their partner and fewer structural constraints to ending the relationship when compared to married couples,” the research says. “These factors are likely to strongly influence decisions that partners make about whether to remain in the relationship or to end the relationship.”

Gisborne resident Kirilly Gordon, who recently separated from her de facto partner with whom she had a home and two children, said it was hard to know whether being married would have made it harder to leave her relationship.

“My thought was that it’s not the marriage that keeps people together,” she says. “It’s your partnership.”

“I never put that much emphasis, clearly, on marriage. Maybe if I were someone who thought that was important it might have been more difficult.”

Jill Robertson says being married will not change her relationship to her partner, but it may make her feel “safer”.

“I think there is something to that,” she says. “Even if it is just on paper.”







[via Sydney Morning Herald]

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