Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates in Western Europe?

By Kneip, Thorsten; Bauer, Gerrit | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates in Western Europe?


Kneip, Thorsten, Bauer, Gerrit, Journal of Marriage and Family


The increase in European divorce rates over the past decades was accompanied by several changes in divorce laws. Yet for European countries, research on the effects of divorce law on the divorce rate is scarce. Most of the existing studies are based on data from North America and provide numerous, but inconsistent, results. We use fixed-effects regression models to examine the impact of the introduction of unilateral divorce on the divorce rate in Western European countries. We find that de facto unilateral divorce practices led to a sustainable increase in the divorce rate, whereas legal rights to unilaterally divorce had no long-run effects.

Key Words: divorce, family economics, family law, fixedeffects models, rational choice, time-series analysis.

Since the late 1960s, divorce rates have risen markedly across Europe and the industrialized world. It is not surprising that this rise, which is often interpreted as a serious societal change, has been intensively studied by sociologists and that several correlates of marital instability could be identified (cf. Kitson, Barbri, & Roach, 1985; Wagner & Weiss, 2006; White, 1990). The relevance of the topic also arises from possible consequences of the dramatic rise in divorce rates for other domains of human life, for example, changing patterns of fertility, child development, or the gendered division of labor (Furstenberg, 1990; Kitson & Morgan, 1990; Parkman, 1992; Peters, 1986; Seltzer, 1994). All in all, the explanation of rising divorce rates turns out to be a prominent and important issue in sociology and demography, as well as in economics. The question we address here is whether changes in divorce legislation have had an impact on the development of divorce rates, particularly in Europe. This issue has not gained much attention in the sociological literature so far, but has been more or less restricted to economic debate. That is somewhat surprising, as it concerns a genuinely sociological subject: showing how a collective phenomenon is socially determined (e.g., Wippler & Lindenberg, 1987).

In all Western European countries divorce rates have risen over the last half century (Figure 1). Throughout this article, the term "Western Europe" applies, for matters of brevity, to a set of 18 countries that includes all EU-15 countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), as well as Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. Family law in all of these countries has, during about the same time period, undergone major changes. How then have changes in divorce law - or institutional transformations - influenced the actual number of divorces'?

The first, and maybe major, change was the introduction of divorce as a legal act. This adaptation occurred quite early in most European countries, aside from the laggards Portugal ( 1 977), Spain ( 1 98 1 ), and Ireland ( 1 997). Prior to the introduction of divorce as an official opportunity to leave a marriage, the divorce rates in the governmental statistics were zero. A second change in divorce laws concerns the introduction of so-called "no-fault" divorce regimes. In 10 out of 18 countries, no-fault divorce was already possible before 1960. All other countries had introduced no-fault grounds by 1997. These were sometimes intended as additional to fault grounds, but most of the countries we consider eventually installed them in replacement thereof. Moreover, where fault grounds have been kept, they are decreasingly used and usually do not affect the question of alimony payments (Goode, 1993, p. 32). This article focuses on more recent legal shifts, namely, the introduction of unilateral divorce regimes. Unilateral divorce regimes are characterized by the possibility of obtaining a divorce without the consent of one's spouse. In unilateral divorce regimes, the mutual consent necessary in countries and during periods with bilateral divorce laws is no longer a requirement. …

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