Who, when and why: new 2021 divorce stats from the ONS

The ONS has just released their divorce statistics for the year 2021. Whilst the headline grabbing number might be that the number of divorces in 2021 increased by almost 10% on 2020, as always there is a story behind every stat.

Directors Rita Gupta and Anne Leiper take a look at the ONS figures and give their insights and comments.


A 9.6% increase in divorces in 2021 compared to 2020

The total number of divorces from both opposite sex and same sex couples increased in 2021.

Rita says: “It’s hardly surprising that there were more divorces in 2021 than 2020, as the courts began to reopen again after the pandemic lockdowns. The rise of 4% from 2019 divorce rate was partially due I suspect to so many divorces delayed from 2020, and so the 2021 stats reflect this “backlog”. Equally the pressures of the pandemic itself will have had an impact on couple deciding to separate.”


63% of opposite sex divorces were started by women (36.9% by men)

According to the ONS dataset, more women are the petitioner going back to the early 1960s, although the percentage balance have changed.

Anne says: “It’s interesting that here at LGFL, our clients are pretty much a 50%-50% split between men and women. Not every client is a petitioner, (the person who instigates divorce proceedings) needless to say. We work just as hard with recipients towards securing a fair and balanced financial settlement for them and their families.”


Female couples account for 67.2% of same-sex divorces

In contrast, the divorce rate for same sex male couples is 36.9%. Male same sex couples tend to stay married for longer, with a median 5.9 years, with female same sex couples at a lower 5.1 years.

Rita says: “It’s worth bearing in mind that same sex divorces have only been available in England and Wales since 2015. So, the figures might be slightly slanted as a result. This compares with an average marriage duration for opposite sex couples in 2021 of 12.3 years. The ONS stats are only for same sex marriages that end in divorce, not the dissolution of civil partnerships”

More details on this at the ONS here.


Changes in grounds for divorce

Unreasonable behaviour was the most cited reason for divorce, up to 48.1% from 47.4% in 2020. Men were more likely to cite a 2-year separation over unreasonable behaviour, a change from the 2020 stats. The ONS noted that:

“Following the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, which came into effect on 6 April 2022, the requirement to specify grounds for divorce has been removed. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has stated that this might have affected divorces in 2021.”

Rita says: “No fault divorce allows a couple to divorce without allocating blame. The only reason that needs to be given for the divorce is “irreconcilable differences”. The arrival of no-fault divorce in April 2022 has a major impact on divorce amongst our clients. Some wanted to get their divorce in process before this deadline, so they actually could allocate fault/blame. Others preferred to hold off until the new legislation for a less acrimonious separate without the blame game aspect.”

Divorce rate amongst the overall married population

As a percentage of the overall married population, the divorce rates rose in 2021 to:

  • 9.3 per 1000 (0.93%) for men
  • 9.4 per 1000 (0.94%) for women

Anne says: “I like this kind of statistic because it shows just how many marriages are actually OK! Having said that, it’s important to remember that not every couple are married. Many of our clients cohabitate (live together), and there is considerably less legal protection for them should they choose to separate, in contrast to married couples. That’s why at LGFL we offer specific advice for cohabiting couples, including mediation. See our cohabitation page for more details.”


Duration of marriage

The advantage of a history of divorce data ensures that the ONS can look at changes over the long term. So, for example:

  • 1 in 10 (10%) couples who married in 1965 were divorced by their 10th anniversary.
  • 1 in 4 couples (25%) who married in 1996 were divorced by their 10th anniversary.
  • 1 in 5 couples (20%) who married in 2011 were divorced by their 10th anniversary.

In contrast,

  • 23% of couples who married in 1965 were divorced by their 25th anniversary.


  • 41% of couples who married in 1996 were divorced by their 25th anniversary.

Rita says: “People who have been married 25+ years and then divorcing re part of a rising number of “silver separators” or “silver splitters”. I’ll be writing about divorce amongst the 55+ age group very shortly, as it’s a more involved potentially complex business after decades of intertwined family finances and changing circumstances.”


The impact of no-fault divorce

No fault divorce takes a minimum of 6 months from initial application to completion. So we won’t really know the impact of the new system until at least April next year, when the ONS will have a whole year of data to work with. We await these stats with interest!


Talk to us before becoming a statistic…

Understanding the implications of divorce is an important step before you make your final decision. Taking legal advice before taking any action is important too, so you know the process you are entering into, what is involved, and what may be required from you in terms of emotions as well as paperwork.

Take advantage of our reduced fee 60-minute consultation to get the advice you need, when you need it:

- Call us

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- Request a consultation

Please note that LGFL Ltd do not have a Legal Aid contract and cannot offer legal aid services to any client.