Adultery no longer top reason for divorce

20 September 2013

Unreasonable behaviour now accounts for almost half of all divorces

Warring couples citing adultery as the reason for divorce have halved over the past forty years while unreasonable behaviour has rocketed, according to new research issued today (Friday 20 September 2013).

The Co-operative Legal Services* as well as the present day.

The research revealed 29 percent of marriages ended because of adultery in the 1970s while the latest figures show only 15 percent of divorces were down to infidelity. In the 1970s unreasonable behaviour was cited in 28 percent of cases but now accounts for almost half of all divorces (47 percent).

Christina Blacklaws, Director of Policy, The Co-operative Legal Services, said:

“Although society’s attitudes to divorce have changed, with less of a stigma attached to it, the grounds for divorce have remained enshrined in law for decades. Unreasonable behaviour by a partner has steadily emerged as the most likely grounds for divorce and examples include being unsociable, a workaholic and even cross-dressing.

“The widely held belief is that divorces are granted because of the man’s behaviour but there has been a marked shift over the decades, with men now five times more likely than in the 1970s to be granted a divorce because of the unreasonable actions of wives.”

The study highlighted the Eighties, rife with young, upwardly mobile professionals, to be the most adulterous divorcees across the ages with nearly one in three (29 percent) of all divorces granted due to cheating on a partner. In the same decade, almost one in five (17.5 percent) divorces were down to the man’s infidelity.

In contrast, figures for 2010 and 2011 show a fall in the number of divorces because of affairs with only one in six divorces ending because of a partner being unfaithful. In the 2010s only one in ten (9.8 percent) - the lowest among the decades – was the result of cheating men.

In the ‘naughty’ 90s almost two out of five divorces (38 percent) were granted to women because of their man’s unreasonable behaviour. Yet, less than one in 20 (4.2 percent) marriages were dissolved because of poor behaviour by women.

However, the Noughties showed that generation of wives to be the worst behaved, with one in ten marriages (10 percent) being granted in the man’s favour because of his wife’s behaviour.

Comparing women’s actions across the decades revealed that those who divorced in the Seventies and Eighties were the biggest betrayers with around 12 percent in each decade having an affair which led to the breakdown of their marriage.

Grounds for divorce can include:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour – which can include physical violence, verbal abuse, drunkenness or drug-taking, refusing to pay for housekeeping and gambling
  • Desertion
  • Separation (for two years with the other party’s consent to a divorce or separation for five years without their consent)

Examples of unreasonable behaviour given to lawyers** for divorce include:

  • A husband hiding a tape recorder in the bedroom and his wife’s handbag to record her conversations
  • Irresponsibility with money
  • An unsociable husband making his wife feel guilty when she wanted to go out with her friends
  • A cross dressing husband after he decided to have a sex change
  • Withdrawing all of the family savings (£40,000) from the bank and burning it in the bedroom
  • A husband who was so work obsessed that he filled the bedroom with so many files that his wife couldn’t get into the room

The Seventies witnessed the highest percentage of desertions with one in 25 husbands or wives abandoning their partner with men three times as likely as women to desert in the period. Divorces granted because of long-term separations spiked in the decade, with over one in three (36.7 percent) marriages ending because couples lived apart. The decade of flares and love also saw the most marriages with over 3.8 million*** people tying the knot whereas only 2.5 million said ‘I do’ in the Noughties.

Noughties men lived up to the decade’s title with unreasonable behaviour being cited for almost two out of five (37 percent) women filing for divorce.

Christina Blacklaws added: “We now see around five times as many divorces as occurred in the 1950s, and sadly for every two marriages we also witness a divorce.

“The breakdown of any marriage can be problematic but the rise of homeownership and working mothers means more consideration needs to be given to agreeing how finances, including pension rights, will be divided, to caring responsibilities and custody of children. These matters can lead to animosity and disagreement but wherever possible people should try to resolve these issues without involving the courts.”

Of all the decades, the Nineties had the highest number of divorces with over 1.5 million while the Seventies had around 1.1 million. In comparison the 1950s had around 275,000 divorces and the 1960s witnessed 360,000. 

Additional Information:

* Research covers 5.1million divorces between 1974 and 2011 -  Data is only available from 1974 following the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 which requires that the marriage breakdown be proved by evidence of one of five ‘facts’: adultery, behaviour, desertion, or separation for two years with the other party’s consent to a divorce or separation for five years.

** Examples from The Co-operative Legal Services family law division.


The Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) was established in 2006 and, in 2012, became the first major consumer brand to be granted Alternative Business Structure (ABS) status. This means it is now authorised to offer a range of legal services to the public that were previously only available through private solicitors. The change means that consumers now have greater choice and access to legal advice than they ever had before.

In September 2012, it launched a new family law arm of its business, offering a comprehensive range of family law services which includes divorce, child protection, mediation and financial issues. In addition, The Co-operative Legal Services provides the following services to consumers: - will writing, employment law, probate and personal injury.

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Contact Information:

Craig Noonan
PR Business Lead – Non-Food
The Co-operative Group
Tel: 0161 767 4284
Mobile: 07702 505439