Academic journal article Demographic Research

Age at Marriage and the Risk of Divorce in England and Wales

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Age at Marriage and the Risk of Divorce in England and Wales

Article excerpt



A well-documented association exists between age at marriage and the risk of divorce. However, substantial gaps in our knowledge and understanding of its origins, nature, and implications still exist.


This article documents the relationship between women's ages at first marriage and marriage cohort divorce rates, assessing the importance of relative ages at marriage (based on rankings within marriage cohorts) and of absolute, chronological ages at marriage, and evaluating the contribution of changes in the age at marriage distribution to observed divorce rates.


Direct standardisation and logistic regression analyses are applied to published marriage and divorce data for the 1974-1994 marriage cohorts in England and Wales.


Changing ages at marriage appear to have constrained the rise in divorce across the cohorts examined. However, the results suggest that much of the impact of age at marriage is linked to relative ages, reducing the extent of this 'braking' effect. It also appears that a positive effect of relative age at marriage on the risk of divorce for later marriages is outweighed by the negative effect of absolute age at marriage at higher ages.


Both explanations relating to 'maturity' and explanations focusing on 'selection' or 'marriage markets' appear of relevance to the association between age at marriage and divorce.


The data source provides over five million cases; however, it does not provide any scope to control for cohabitation, education, etc., and the analyses are restricted to divorces within about ten years of marriage. Further, related studies would be useful.

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

1. Introduction

Various recent studies have focused upon the impact that changes in the ages at which demographic life-course events occur can have on period-based measures relating to those events. For example, Bongaarts and Feeney (1998) and Schoen (2004) have examined, and proposed ways of correcting for, the impact of delayed childbearing upon period fertility rates; Bongaarts and Feeney (2003) and Goldstein and Wachter (2006) have examined the relationship between cohort life expectancy and period measures of life expectancy; and Schoen and Canudas-Romo (2005, 2006) have examined both the impact of delayed marriage on a period measure of the proportion ever marrying and also the impact of the timing of divorce upon period divorce rates.

An important feature of these studies is that, in showing period rates to be subject to distortions, in effect they set up cohort rates as a 'gold standard'. However, short- term trends in cohort rates can be affected by closely related forms of demographic change in a way that may similarly create a false impression of the likely nature of longer-term trends. More specifically, a decline in the marital dissolution rate in the US in the 1980s-1990s can be attributed primarily to rising ages at marriage (Heaton 2002: 402-403; see also Goldstein 1999: 411). Similarly, Amato et al. (2007: 96) note that rising ages at marriage compensated for the majority of an underlying negative trend in marital quality during the period 1980-2000, for various measures.

This article examines the impact of trends in women's age at (first) marriage on cohort divorce rates in England and Wales, in the context of a broader examination of the relationship between women's age at (first) marriage and the risk of divorce. According to White (1990), the literature theorizing this relationship, as opposed to simply documenting it, is relatively limited; Glenn, Uecker, and Love (2010: 788) characterise this existing literature as consisting of several "theoretical fragments", albeit providing some relevant perspectives. Heaton (2002: 395) also suggests that surprisingly little attention has been paid to identifying the causal mechanisms linking age at marriage and marital instability. …

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