Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Marriage Breakdown in Australia: The Social Correlates of Separation and Divorce

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Marriage Breakdown in Australia: The Social Correlates of Separation and Divorce

Article excerpt

The increase in divorce rates in all Western countries over the last century is well documented (Cherlin, 1992; White, 1990). Australia is no exception. At the turn of the 20th century, divorce was virtually non-existent, but by the end of the 20th century it was estimated that 32 percent of Australian marriages would end in divorce (ABS, 2000). Moreover, official divorce statistics tend to under-represent marriage breakdown because many marriages end in permanent separation and never proceed to divorce, or do not proceed to divorce for several years, and in these circumstances marriage breakdown is not officially recorded until divorce is awarded (ABS, 1999a, 2000). While divorce rates have levelled off since the early 1980s, marital separation and divorce continue to be a pervasive feature of Australian society and the subject of extensive government policy. Despite this, however, only a handful of Australian studies have examined marriage breakdown.

Australian divorce research

A small but important body of work on marriage breakdown has emerged in Australia over the last few decades. The Australian literature, however, is dominated by descriptive studies of the demographic trends in divorce (Carmichael et al., 1996; De Vaus, 1997; Ozdowski and Hattie, 1981; Stewart and Harrison, 1982) and research into post-marriage breakdown processes (Funder, 1996; Funder et al., 1993; McDonald, 1986; Smyth and Weston, 2000). Overall, these studies provide little explanatory information about the social factors associated with marital breakdown. Only a few researchers have investigated this issue. For example, Wolcott and Hughes (1999) investigate separated and divorced peoples' perceptions of why their marriages failed. Burns (1984) also examined marital breakdown by investigating the reasons respondents gave for their separation/divorce. But both these studies only sampled separated and divorced people and therefore provide no comparison of characteristics with people who remained married. Moreover, the main emphasis of the research was the respondent's perception of why the relationship ended, with neither study able to fully investigate the broader social correlates of marriage breakdown.

Several Australian studies have examined the impact of structural factors on marital dissolution (Bracher et al., 1993; De Vaus et al., 2003; Jones, 1994; Sarantakos, 1994), but all have significant limitations. Bracher et al. (1993) investigated the temporal and life-course determinants of divorce in Australia, but only include women in their sample. Jones (1994) compared divorce rates of mixed-ethnic marriages with ethnically homogeneous marriages, but did not include any other explanatory variables in the analysis. De Vaus et al. (2003) conducted a detailed examination of the effects of cohabitation on the likelihood of marriage breakdown within eight years of marriage, but did not specifically identify other life-course variables (even though they were included in the models). Similarly, Sarantakos (1994) focused on the impact of cohabitation on marital quality and marriage dissolution, paying little attention to other structural factors. Therefore, while previous research provides important background information and raises key issues, there is still a large gap in our understanding of divorce processes in Australia.

Furthermore, separation and divorce has recently received much policy attention in Australia. Most policy initiatives, however, focus on preventing marriage breakdown by providing funding for individual and relationship counselling services (Australian Government, 2004). These strategies are worthwhile but have limitations. The risk factors for marital breakdown extend beyond couple and individual dynamics where these policy initiatives are concentrated. There is much scope for research to complement these strategies by identifying broader structural factors associated with divorce to aid in the identification of 'at risk' groups who can be targeted in prevention campaigns (Halford, 2000). …

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