It’s official. After appearing to go into reverse in 2015, the latest figures available reveal that the annual number of divorce cases in Northern Ireland is back on the rise – and headed towards the as yet unreached 3,000 mark.
The number of registered divorces dipped to a still high 2,360 in 2015, but newly released figures show that that number jumped to 2,572 in 2016 – a figure surpassed only twice in the history of the records available, which date back to 1984.
The number of couples ending their marriage rose to 2,600 in 2010, but the highest number registered came in 2007, when 2,913 couples parted ways.
The 2016 figure of 2,572 is a far cry from the 1,514 number almost 30 years earlier in 1987 – the lowest number on record.
The number of divorces across the Province hovered around the 1,500 mark during the mid-late 1980s, until crossing the 2,000 barrier in 1991.
It has never fallen below 2,000 in any year since.
As Colin Bates, from Belfast-based solicitors Mackenzie & Dorman acknowledges, much can be said about changing cultural attitudes and views on marriage, with more people choosing to simply live together before making a legal commitment, but, of course, this doesn’t quite explain why marriages end once they have begun.
There will be many reasons for an increasing number of divorces over the past three decades – a rising population; falling church attendance levels, resulting in people perhaps not taking the institution of marriage as seriously as previous generations did; and even the end of the Troubles may have had an impact (times of conflict – and the fear which they bring – are known to bring smaller units closer together).
But let’s get back to those 2016 figures – and take a look at things closer to home.
In the Coleraine area, 177 divorces were registered.
No localised figures for previous years are available – but we can make a comparison with other parts of Northern Ireland.
However, we cannot look at those figures in isolation.
Rather than simply compare tallies from different areas, the population of the area will need to be taken into consideration in order to draw a fair comparison.
When this is factored in, we get a better picture of how things look.
The tables illustrating this article rank the areas of residence where divorce is most and least common.
Coleraine finds itself among the areas where divorce is most common – just five areas are placed higher on the table.
Carrickfergus is in third place, with Banbridge coming in second, while Ards takes the place of divorce capital of Northern Ireland.
Other towns and areas which make this list include Antrim, Coleraine and Ballymena.
At the other end of the scale, Magherafelt is identified as the area where divorce is least common.
As a percentage of its population, the number of divorcees there – 0.16% – is less than half of that in Ards (0.34%) and just over half of that in Coleraine (0.30%).
Other towns and areas which keep Magherafelt company on the table highlighting where divorce is least common include Fermanagh, Dungannon, Cookstown and Omagh.
Interestingly, this table also features three cities (Armagh, Newry and Derry/Londonderry), as well as the capital city of Belfast.
On a more Northern Ireland-wide scale, another observation which can be made from some of the data unpublished on these pages relates to the ‘age’ of the marriage.
Marriages lasting between five and nine years have the highest number of divorce registrations, when compared against all other marriages by duration.
This has – aside from a blip in the 2006-2010 period when the 10-14-year-old marriage was most vulnerable – remained constant ever since 1983.
Population size may explain why figures jump in urban areas, says Colin Bates:
From the time your first child is born, until they leave for university or their own home, your life is dominated by them – caring for them, talking to them, and about them, making your plans fit theirs.
Therefore, when a couple finds themselves alone in their home for the first time in 20 years, it can be difficult to reconnect on that one-to-one basis.
Without their child as a common interest, what do they talk about? What shapes their weekends?
Many find they have simply grown apart.
It’s difficult to say why there are more divorces in some areas over others.
You have to consider, of course, where the courts of law are based and how many people are living in each different city and location.
However, when we look at the data we have for areas in Northern Ireland, we can see that the lowest rate areas of Fermanagh, Dungannon and Magherafelt are more rural, while Banbridge, Ards and Carrickfergus, those with the highest rates, can be described as urban.
We cannot give a definitive reason why this might be, but it has been suggested that marriages are more likely to fail in the city, because of the typically higher income of its occupants.
Higher income means that couples are better equipped to afford solicitor costs, and also the price of separating – buying additional cars, a second home, etc.
Others still have suggested that the larger populations mean that people have more choice than those in smaller, more rural areas, and are therefore more likely to be unhappy with their chosen partner.
Colin Bates is director at Mackenzie & Dorman solicitors, Belfast.
...so why are marriages ending?
The main ground for divorce in Northern Ireland, by far, is separation, accounting for about 73% of divorces in 2016.
This is almost precisely the same figure we arrive at when we look at the number of couples who divorced on the grounds of separation in 1984 as a proportion of all divorces. So far, no great surprises. The amount of marriages ending due to ‘combined agreement’ has been rising steadily through the decades. Thirty-five years ago it accounted for just over 2% of cases – that figure has now risen to about 10%. But then it gets very interesting. Adultery, as a motive for divorce, only accounted for 2% of divorces in 2016.
That is a significant decrease from 1984, from 208 incidences (and accounting for slightly less than 14% of divorces) to just 51. The situation regarding divorce on the grounds of behaviour is the reverse of this. Just over 130 couples parted ways on the grounds of behaviour in 1984, working out at about 9% of the total number of divorces.
However, fast-forward to 2016 and you will see a slightly different picture. The number of couples where behaviour has been quoted as the motive for divorce has now swollen to 372 – or almost 15% of all divorces.
As Colin Bates at Mackenzie and Dorman acknowledges, aside from adultery falling to low levels, ‘desertion’ has almost vanished completely in the same timespan.
Thirty-two divorces were granted on these terms in 1984, but only one in 2016.
Mr Bates says that the desertion ground is difficult to prove and is rarely used: “We all have social media profiles.
“These pin us to places and other people, making it exceptionally difficult to vanish into thin air.
“Even if we personally do not update our social media, friends might – and upload a tell-tale picture of you to their account.
“The best thing, of course, is to be honest with your spouse, rather than running away.”