Depending on who you believe, it was either the famous American author, Mark Twain, or a Victorian-era Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who first declared that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”. Regardless of the phrase’s origins, its implications are rather more clear-cut: that figures can be shaped or interpreted to suit the position of those employing them. It’s an interesting point to bear in mind when it comes to analysing trends in relationships – particularly marriage and divorce – which many members of Oratto’s family law department are asked to do by national print and broadcast media with some frequency. Rather than start from a pre-conceived idea of the story which we want to push, we always consider the numbers rather more objectively, putting the picture presented by data in the context of the kinds of cases with which we deal on a daily basis. So, it’s interesting to hear the comments of Sir David Spiegelhalter, Cambridge University professor and recently elected president of the Royal Statistical Society, on when the pressures facing married couples are at their greatest. He’s been telling the Hay Festival that the notion of “the seven-year itch” is indeed supported by statistics - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3626689/Seven-year-itch-really-DOES-make-divorce-likely-Professor-says-statistics-superstition.html.
The concept of the seven-year itch, which has its origins in a screenplay for a Marilyn Monroe movie of the same name, has made its way into common parlance over the half-century or so since. Even so, it’s worth considering whether Sir David’s assertion really stands up to scrutiny and, if it does, why it might be the case. The most recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that there are two distinct periods during which marriages are at risk of ending in divorce. They can be described as a wave of domestic discontent, breaking just over five years after a couple exchange their vows before then subsiding only to resurface after 10 years have passed. (At this point, I should perhaps note that the median duration of marriage before divorce in England and Wales has been creeping upwards in the last decade, reaching a high of 11.7 years in 2013).
Within the broad tidal trend of divorce that I’ve identified, there are subtle patterns, though. Had Sir David Spiegelhalter been commenting on 2011 and 2012, he would have been quite correct. However, those years appear to be the exceptions which partially prove his “seven-year itch” argument. What is more demonstrable from the ONS data is that times of economic uncertainty seems to ratchet up stress in the home and push some couples to a more immediate breaking point. Perhaps some of those individuals who found themselves practically unable to exit a failing marriage had waited until the last recession had ended before moving on.
For me, the more interesting element is not the precise point at which families fracture but why they do. In my experience, there is something of a honeymoon period which follows a wedding, as the novelty of marriage propels both spouses forward. That is often checked by the challenges of moving house and the monetary consequences of doing so, trying to progress in their respective careers and the arrival (or not) of children. As these challenges arrive, most couples try to work through them, believing that the positivity of their early time together will see them through. Sadly, that confidence is misplaced in too many cases. Even for those who succeed in remaining together, the advent of retirement and the reality of having children fly the nest can create a second bout of marital turbulence in middle-age that leads them not towards the horizon hand in hand but off to the divorce courts. Defining not a date range but a reason which accounts for most divorces would, in my opinion, be far more useful in that it might – just – be possible to intervene and keep husbands and wives together.
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