The five basic grounds for divorce are the same throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland:
1.   Adultery
2.   Unreasonable behaviour
3.   Desertion
4.   The parties to the marriage have lived apart for at least two years and both consent to the divorce
5.   The parties have lived apart for at least five years.1

  • The first three grounds are ‘faults’ that can be committed by one spouse against the other, allowing the ‘innocent’ spouse to apply for a divorce. Grounds 4 and 5 are ‘no-fault’ grounds requiring evidence of separation.
  • Divorce was only legalised in 1857. Prior to that an Act of Parliament was needed to obtain a divorce. The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act permitted divorce for the innocent party where they could prove their spouse had committed adultery.2 The grounds for divorce were widened in 1937 to include desertion, cruelty and incurable insanity.3
  • The 1969 Divorce Reform Act restated the three existing fault grounds of adultery, desertion and cruelty (widened to ‘unreasonable behaviour’) and added the two ‘no-fault’ separation grounds. Scotland and Northern Ireland subsequently adopted the same five grounds.
  • The so-called ‘special procedure’ introduced in England and Wales in 1973 means a divorce can be conducted by post. In Northern Ireland there must be a proper hearing before a judge where the reasons are explained. There is no special procedure where divorce is obtainable by post.
  • The Family Law (Scotland) Act 2005 dramatically reduced the amount of time required for a divorce on the grounds of separation in Scotland. The five year period where one party does not consent was reduced to two years. Where both parties consent the time period was reduced from two years to one. The Act also abolished desertion as a ground for divorce; though adultery and unreasonable behaviour were retained.

Key Statistics

  • In 2014 there were 122,651 divorces in the UK.4 In 2014 the percentage of married couples that divorced was just under 1% in England and Wales.
  • An estimated 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce.5 For almost half (45%) of divorces in England and Wales in 2014, there were children aged under 16 living in the family.6
  • The divorce rate in England and Wales fell from a peak of 14.2 per thousand married population in 1993 to 9.3 in 2014.7 This is partly due to the growth of cohabitation and correspondingly fewer people getting married – the percentage of the eligible population that was married in 1993 was around 57%, and this had fallen to approximately 51% by 2014.8
  • Figures from 2016 show that just over a fifth (22%) of dependent children in the UK lived in lone parent families (which includes divorced, separated or widowed). It still needs to be remembered that 63% of children lived in a family headed by a heterosexual married couple.9
  • In 1936 there were some 5,788 divorces. Then came the more liberal provisions of the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act: in 1939 there were 9,144 divorces.10
  • By 1961 there were around 27,000 divorces. In 1972 (the year after the 1969 Divorce Reform Act came into force) the number was around 125,000.11
  • For those married in 1968, 20% of marriages had ended in divorce by their 15th wedding anniversary. For those married in 1998, almost a third of marriages had ended by this time.12

Given the devastating effects of divorce on adults, children and society (see below), even those who do not hold to a Christian view of divorce should be opposed to measures which make divorce even easier. The statistics clearly show that every time the law on divorce has been liberalised, the number of divorces has increased.

Biblical arguments 1: The grounds for divorce

  • God spelled out the importance of marriage for mankind right at the beginning of human history when, after Eve was created for Adam, the Bible records: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
  • Jesus Christ was asked a specific question about ‘no-fault’ divorce by the Pharisees: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3). His answer was emphatic “What …God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6, KJV).
  • Christ said that the provision in the Law of Moses permitting a man simply to write a certificate to divorce his wife was allowed only because of the hardness of men’s hearts. Christ rejected this by appealing directly to Genesis: “But it was not this way from the beginning.”13
  • The apostle Paul emphasised the sanctity and permanence of marriage vows when he compared the relationship between a husband and wife with the relationship between Christ and the Church.14 Such doctrine brings home the seriousness of divorce in the eyes of the God who says “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16).
  • ‘No-fault’ divorce is unknown in Christian theology.
  • Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel is cited as allowing adultery to be a basis for divorce (Matthew 5:32, 19:9). Some Christians also believe that in 1 Corinthians 7:15 Paul allows for desertion as a ground of divorce. Both of these are clearly grounds of ‘fault’.

Church viewpoints on the grounds for divorce

  • There are sincerely held differences of view amongst creedally orthodox Churches on the question of remarriage after divorce. There are essentially two views. Some do not allow remarriage at all; others permit it only for the innocent spouse.
  • Amongst Protestants, theological conservatives can be found in both groups.
  • The Church of England teaches that marriage is for life. Its longstanding position until relatively recently was to permit divorce but not remarriage since it was argued that in God’s sight the couple were still married.15 However, in 2002 the House of Bishops issued a guidance document to clergy stating that in exceptional circumstances, a divorced person may marry again in church during the lifetime of a former spouse.16 The Church of England’s canon law remains unchanged.17
  • The Roman Catholic Church believes divorce is immoral and a grave offence against the natural law. It therefore considers remarriage while both husband and wife are alive as adultery. The Roman Catholic Church has said: “It can happen that when one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.”18
  • The Westminster Confession (1647) associated with Presbyterian Churches permits divorce and remarriage for the innocent party in the case of adultery.19
  • Historically for centuries the tendency was for churches of all denominations not to permit any divorce at all. They only allowed legal separation (i.e. non-cohabitation) of spouses and even then only where one spouse had committed a serious sin against the other, such as adultery. Both parties remained legally married and therefore could not remarry.
  • Outside the UK the reformers permitted remarriage after divorce for the innocent party. But despite the theoretical possibility of divorce and remarriage, after a detailed study of court records in Reformation Germany, Joel Harrington found that divorce was “a relatively little exercised option”.20 The possibility of collusion in order to obtain a divorce “was considered so great by Protestant authorities that they would not even consider allowing remarriage unless the innocent spouse was free of any suspicion and willing to endure a series of legal and financial obstacles intended to dissuade him or her from such a course”.21

Biblical arguments 2: The case for promoting reconciliation

  • The Bible is clear that marriage is intended to be lifelong. This is for everyone’s good irrespective of whether the married couple are Christians.
  • Even where there are grounds for divorce in a particular case Christians have always advocated that strenuous efforts at reconciliation must be attempted first. In 1 Corinthians 7:10 Paul specifically requires spouses to stay together, or, if they have separated, to attempt reconciliation. When this fails, legal separation (where the couple are still married in law) has often been seen as preferable to divorce.
  • Christians must press for the law and public policy to support reconciliation for couples whose marriages are in difficulty.
  • During the passage of the Family Law Act 1996, Christians sought to extend the period before a ‘no-fault’ divorce could be obtained. This would have given more time for couples to work out their differences and save their marriages. In the event the 1996 Act’s provisions were never implemented (see below).
  • Many divorced couples know how the divorce process can be like a conveyor belt. Even so, a significant number of people change their minds. Every year an average of around 10% of husbands or wives drop their divorce petitions. Typically this means over 10,000 divorces are dropped per year. Of course, not all of these couples will be finally reconciled, but it shows that people are dropping divorce proceedings in very large numbers. 22

Key Points

‘No-fault’ divorce

The 1996 Family Law Act replaced the 1969 Divorce Reform Act with ‘no-fault’ divorce in England and Wales. It is a great relief that the ‘no-fault’ divorce provisions of the 1996 Act were repealed without ever coming into force.23 The reason for this is that the pilot schemes showed the Act to be unworkable.

Under the Act, it would have been easier to get out of a marriage than a hire purchase agreement.

However, in April 2015 Baroness Hale, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court again called for the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorce.24

The consequences of the high divorce rate

The breakdown of the traditional family structure has many consequences for society, including financial consequences.

  • A 2015 estimate placed the total cost of family breakdown to the UK at over £47 billion a year.25
  • A child of separated parents has a higher probability of:
    • Being in poverty and poor housing;
    • Being poorer when they are adults;
    • Behavioural problems;
    • Performing less well in school;
    • Needing medical treatment;
    • Leaving school/home when young;
    • Becoming sexually active, pregnant, or a parent at an early age;
    • Depressive symptoms, high levels of smoking and drinking and drug use during adolescence and adulthood.26
  • A study by the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre, which analysed two major surveys of thousands of children, found that children whose parents divorce after they turn seven are more likely to misbehave and perform badly at school.27
  • The Exeter Family Study found that divorce does not usually reduce conflict for the children. In fact the opposite is true:
    “…the experience of most children whose parents have divorced is of increased conflict over an extended period, with the child involved to an extent that may not have been the case while the marriage lasted”.28
  • Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that 65% of 12 to 16-year-old children in low-income households do not live with both birth parents.29
  • A 2009 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour showed that the damage to health caused by divorce persists even after remarriage: “among the currently married those who experienced one divorce or multiple disruptions show worse health on every dimension than the continuously married”.30
  • A report from One plus One has also shown that adults who divorce have a greatly increased incidence (compared to those who remain married) of heart disease, cancer, alcoholism and suicide.31
  • As Professor A H Halsey, late Professor of Social Policy at Nuffield College, Oxford and co-author of English Ethical Socialism once stated:
    “No one can deny that divorce, separation, birth outside marriage and one-parent families as well as cohabitation and extra-marital sexual intercourse have increased rapidly. Many applaud these freedoms. But what should be universally acknowledged is that the children of parents who do not follow the traditional norm (i.e. taking on personal, active and long-term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of living a successful life. On the evidence available such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered… The evidence all points in the same direction, is formidable, and tallies with common sense.”32
  1. 1For England and Wales see Section 1(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. For Northern Ireland see Article 3 of The Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. Technically there is one ground – ‘irretrievable breakdown’ – proved by one of five facts.
  2. 2Cretney, S M, Elements of Family Law, 6th edition, Sweet & Maxwell, 1992, page 30
  3. 3Cretney, S M and Masson, J M, Principles of Family Law, Sweet & Maxwell, 1997, page 307
  4. 4Divorces in England and Wales: 2014, ONS Statistical bulletin, December 2016, see https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2014 as at 3 February 2017; Vital Statistics: Population and Health Reference Tables, ONS, November 2016, see http://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/vitalstatisticspopulationandhealthreferencetables/current/annualreferencetablesummer2016final.xls as at 3 February 2017
  5. 5Divorces in England and Wales: 2014, ONS, Statistical bulletin, December 2016, page 10, see https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2014 as at 14 February 2017
  6. 6Divorces in England and Wales: 2014, ONS, Statistical bulletin, December 2016, Table 8, see https://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/datasets/divorcesinenglandandwales/2014/divorcetables2014.xls as at 3 February 2017
  7. 7Divorces in England and Wales: 2014, ONS Statistical bulletin, December 2016, Figure 2, see https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2014 as at 3 February 2017
  8. 8Mid-1991 to Mid-2001 Population Estimates by Marital Status: Single year of age and sex for England and Wales; estimated resident population, ONS, November 2011, see http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/pop-estimate/population-estimates-by-marital-status/mid-1991—mid-2001/rft—mid-1991-to-mid-2001-marital-status-estimates.zip as at 3 February 2017; Marital status by age group and sex, England and Wales, 2002 to 2014, ONS, July 2015, see http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/family-demography/population-estimates-by-marital-status-and-living-arrangements/england-and-wales–2002-to-2014/rft-1.xls as at 6 February 2017
  9. 9Families and Households in the UK: 2016, ONS Statistical bulletin, November 2016, page 5, see https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2016 as at 14 February 2017
  10. 10Vital Statistics: Population and Health Reference Tables, ONS, November 2016, see http://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/vitalstatisticspopulationandhealthreferencetables/current/annualreferencetablesummer2016final.xls as at 3 February 2017
  11. 11Vital Statistics: Population and Health Reference Tables, ONS, November 2016, see http://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/vitalstatisticspopulationandhealthreferencetables/current/annualreferencetablesummer2016final.xls as at 3 February 2017
  12. 12Divorces in England and Wales: 2013, ONS Statistical bulletin, November 2015, page 7, see https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2013 as at 14 February 2017
  13. 13Matthew 19:8
  14. 14Ephesians 5:22-29
  15. 15GS 1361 Marriage in church after divorce, The Archbishops’ Council, Church of England, 2000. For an explanation of the Anglican view see Cornes, A, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principles and Pastoral Practice, Hodder & Stoughton, 1993. Cornes writes from a conservative evangelical perspective.
  16. 16GS 1449 Marriage in Church after Divorce, Report by the House of Bishops, Church of England, July 2002, pages 404-438
  17. 17Canon B30 – Of Holy Matrimony, Church of England
  18. 18Catechism of the Catholic Church, Chapter 4: Offenses Against the Dignity of Marriage, paras 2384-2386
  19. 19Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 24: Of Marriage and Divorce, para 5
  20. 20Harrington, J F, Reordering marriage and society in Reformation Germany, Cambridge University Press, 1995, page 269
  21. 21Ibid, page 270
  22. 22Family Court Statistics Quarterly April to June 2016, ONS, Ministry of Justice Statistics bulletin, September 2016, Table 8, see https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2016 as at 14 February 2017; Family Court Statistics Quarterly April to June 2015, ONS, Ministry of Justice Statistics bulletin, September 2015, page 16, see https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2015 as at 14 February
  23. 23Divorce: repeal of Family Law Act 1996 Part 2, House of Commons Standard Note, SN/HA/1409, 12 February 2013, page 1
  24. 24The Times, 9 April 2015
  25. 25Counting the Cost of Family Failure: 2015 Update, Relationships Foundation, February 2015, page 2
  26. 26See Divorce and separation: The outcomes for children, Foundations series, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, June 1998. The full report is published as Rodgers, B and Pryor, J, Divorce and separation: The outcomes for children, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1998
  27. 27Family stressors and children’s outcomes, Jones, E, Gutman, L and Platt, L, Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre, Department for Education, January 2013
  28. 28Cockett, M and Tripp, J, The Exeter Family Study: Family breakdown and its impact on children, University of Exeter Press, 1996, page 58
  29. 29Social Justice: transforming lives – One year on, Department for Work and Pensions, April 2013, page 13, Figure 2
  30. 30Hughes, M E and Waite, L J, ‘Marital Biography and Health at Mid-Life’, Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 50(3), September 2009, pages 344-358
  31. 31McAllister, F (Ed.) Marital Breakdown and The Health of the Nation, 2nd edition, One plus One, 1995, pages 16, 20 and 23
  32. 32Halsey, A H, quoted in Dennis, N and Erdos, G, Families Without Fatherhood, 2nd edition, IEA, 1993, page xii