Divorces rise in older marriages

By Tim Colebatch
September 17, 2004

While couples are most at risk of divorcing in their third year of marriage, divorce rates are now rising most rapidly among couples who have been together the longest.

Figures released by the Bureau of Statistics yesterday show that the number of couples breaking up after 15 years or more of marriage has jumped by more than half in the past 20 years, while the number breaking up after 25 years together has almost doubled.

The results show 2002 recorded the second highest number of divorces for 20 years, with 54,004 Australian couples legally ending their marriages.

The number was topped only by 2001, when reforms allowing couples to divorce in magistrates courts saw 55,330 couples end their marriages.

Since 1982, the number of marriages in Australia has fallen 10 per cent, yet the number of divorces has leapt by 22,500.

The bureau estimates that on marriage and divorce rates in the late 1990s, roughly one in three marriages now end in divorce.

The figures show there is no "seven-year itch" - couples are most at risk of breaking up in their third year of marriage. But once a couple have celebrated their third anniversary, with each progressive year, the odds of divorce grow slimmer.

The surprising trend is that older couples are becoming far more ready to divorce. Twenty years ago only 12 per cent of couples who divorced had separated after 20 years together. In 2002, that proportion was 17 per cent - and almost 30 per cent of divorces involved couples who had spent 15 years together.

Two trends could mitigate the social damage of rising divorces:

A rapidly increasing share of divorces result from joint applications by both partners. In 2002 they made up 26 per cent of all divorces granted, compared with 16 per cent a decade earlier.

Women filed 44 per cent of the applications, men 30 per cent. But for those parting after 25 years together, men are more likely to seek divorce from wives.

2002 was the first year in which most couples divorcing did not have dependent children.

The bureau reports that in the year to March Australia's population grew by 235,000, or 1.2 per cent, to 20,062,000. Victoria's population grew by almost 60,000 to 4,962,000. Victoria is now on track to hit 5 million people by Christmas.