This Is Our Story
Jaap Dronkers & Matthijs Kalmijn
The last decades have shown a rise in the rate of divorce in Europe. In all European countries, the probability of divorce or separation among married or cohabiting couples has increased, although in some countries more quickly and more radically than in others. At the same time in some European countries the rise of divorce rates stopped after the very strong increase of the '70s and '80s, while in other countries the rise didn't stop during the '90s. The rise in divorce or separation in (continental) Europe deviates from developments in the United States. The main difference is that in the US, causes and consequences of divorce are strongly connected with "old" forms of social inequality like class, education, income and ethnic group. There are some indications that this connection between old forms of social inequality and divorce is looser in (continental) Europe; for instance, the negative effect of divorce on the well being of children involved tends to be smaller in Europe than in the US. The topic of the cross-national research on divorce is "the relationships of divorce with economic and socio-cultural inequality and with the different social security and family policies within Europe".
Some demographers consider divorce to be a result of growing individualisation and secularisation in society. These two processes put pressure on the traditional values of marriage and raising children, leading to an increased divorce rate. If this is true, European societies with less secularisation and individualisation should have lower divorce rates. If a higher educational level of couples produces a higher level of individualisation, there should be a positive relation between educational level of both spouses and their divorce risk.
An economic tradition attributes the rise in divorce rates to changes in the balance between the cost and benefits of marriage for both husband and wife. If this is true there should be a higher divorce rate among women with high-income jobs, because a high income lowers the cost of divorce for them. In that case, divorce rates in European societies with more full-time working mothers in higher positions should be higher. But the negative effect of parental divorce on children is often explained by the poverty of mother-headed single families. In that case, negative effects of parental divorce should be smaller in European societies with more full-time working mothers in higher positions than in other societies. Social security systems might reduce the degree of poverty in mother-headed single families, which might lead to differences in negative effects of parental divorce between European societies.
Liberal divorce laws might also lead to higher levels of divorce, as some politicians maintain. If this is true, differences between and changes in divorce rates of European societies depend on the differences in their divorce laws. But the most accepted explanation of the negative effect of parental divorce on children is the conflict between parents before and after the break-up. If this is true, liberal divorce laws might dampen the negative effects for children because they prevent long lawsuits and thus the intensity and length of the parental conflict.
Another assumption about the consequences of divorce for inequality is that they result from stigmatisation of the divorcees and their children by the surrounding society. If this assumption is true, the consequences of divorce for inequality should become smaller when the divorce rates increase, because the higher these divorce rates are the more normal divorce becomes and thus the lower the level of stigmatisation. In that case, policy makers do not need to worry about the divorce rates but only need to combat the stigmatisation of divorce in order to counter the relation between inequality and divorce. Therefore, it makes sense to test this assumption of stigmatisation by comparing these negative consequences in different European societies with different divorces rates.
It is useful to make a distinction between the causes and the consequences of divorce on the one hand, and between socio-cultural and economic dimensions on the other hand. The resulting six-fold scheme provides a nice framework for studying aspects of divorce that we think are relevant from a sociological and demographic point of view. The scheme also provides a practical guide for the more general comparative aims of the research network:
Causes of divorce (A B)
Consequences for divorced persons (C D)
Consequences for children of divorced persons (E F)
Each cell in this scheme represents certain types of questions about the relation between divorce and inequality. We will give some examples for each cell.
A. Does the stronger economic position of women, resulting from their larger possibilities of participating in the labour force, increase their risk of divorce? Does the economic position of husbands have a similar effect on their divorce risk? What effects have social security schemes or children allowances on the probability of divorce?
B. Does the stronger socio-cultural position of women, resulting from their larger educational attainment, increase their risk of divorce? Is a large heterogamy in education between wives and husbands an extra divorce risk?
C. What are the effects of divorce on the economic position of both men and women, not only shortly after their divorce but especially in the long run? By economic position, we mean their occupation, income, housing conditions, unemployment and dependency on social welfare.
D. What are the effects of divorce on the socio-cultural position of both men and women, not only shortly after their divorce but especially in the long run? By socio-cultural position we mean the opportunities to find a new partner, contacts with their (adult) children, parents (in-law) and friends, social participation, etc.
E. What are the effects of divorce on the economic position of their children, not only shortly after the parental divorce but also in the long run?
F. What are the effects of divorce on the socio-cultural position of their children, not only shortly after the parental divorce but especially in the long run? By socio-cultural position we mean their educational attainment, their chances to marry, cohabit and to divorce, etc.