Does the evolution of dual-earner families contribute to the rise in divorce in the UK?

Does the evolution of dual-earner families contribute to the rise in divorce in the UK?


In considering this question, we must first be able to provide a definition of what the family is. Defining the family can be somewhat complicated because the structure of the family is constantly changing. The family is viewed as the foundation of society.

Murdock (1949) defines the family as:

The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society.

Although family units vary in their composition, it can be said that the family is universal albeit we, in the UK, may not identify with them and therefore, our western definitions may not fit.

Various aspects affect the family including marital breakdown and the resulting divorce. Recent changes in family patterns and conjugal roles have lead to the creation of dual-earner families. A dual-earner family is one that breaks from the traditional role – where it is expected that the father work outside of the home whilst the mother stays at home taking care of the children. In dual-earner families, both parents work outside of the home.

It can be said that these factors play a pivotal role in marital breakdown and divorce and we will look at how this aspect can influence the family using research evidence.

The evolution of dual-earner families is one of the changes that has affected the family and its structure in recent years. The creation of dual-earner families can be attributed to the fact that UK society has become focused on consumerism and ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’. The family has had to adapt in order to meet the higher costs of living associated with this way of life.

The instance of divorce has increased following the Divorce Reform Act (1971). This Act together with the Legal Aid Advice Act (1949) made divorce financially accessible to those from less wealthy backgrounds and aided in making divorce more socially acceptable.

Many other factors have attributed to the rising rates of divorce in the UK. Graham Allan and Graham Crow (2001) believe that one of the most important factors that contribute to the increase in divorce rates is the fact that husband and wife are no longer financially dependent on one another. Each has their own income and as such, Allan and Crow suggest that this has lead to an increase in women being less likely to tolerate conflict within their marriage and being more likely to contemplate divorce. Official statistics appear to support their suggestion as in 1997 around 70 percent of divorce petitions were served bywives which is a stark contrast to only 37 percent in 1946.

As we know, there are many different social theories that attempt to explain how society functions and, likewise, each theory has an approach to the family. Each theory has an idea of what the family is and why it exists.

Murdock, a functionalist, said that society is based on consensus and agreement and assumes that all institutions exist because they have a function. Murdock outlined four functions of the family – sexual, reproduction, economic and education. As such, these constitute the primary reasons for the existence of the family in the eyes of the Functionalists.

The functionalists view the ‘nuclear family’ as the most desirable type as it is deemed as the most stable. The nuclear family aides the functioning of the whole of society through socialisation that arises due to value consensus.It does so through effective socialisation, which, in turn, instils the norms and values that maintain the shared value consensus of society.

Functionalists emphasise the interdependence of the social institutions, saying that the family is the agent of socialisation before and during a child’s education.

Talcott Parson’s agreed with Murdock however, Parson’s said that the essential functions of the family are becoming increasingly specialised in industrial society. He said the family performs two essential functions which are the primary socialisation of children and the stabilisation of adult personalities.

Of course, there are strengths and weakness in their approach.

Functionalism places great emphasis on the positive aspects of the family such as the socialisation of children, which facilitates the functioning of the whole of society. They acknowledge the existence of family in just about every society. They also highlight that the nuclear family is still the most common form of family.

However, Functionalism has been criticised for ignoring the negative aspects of the family such as the oppression and subjugation of women in the home. Feminists are extremely critical of the Functionalist evaluation of women’s role in the family, particularly regarding conjugal roles and reproduction.

Another approach to the family would be that of Feminism.

Feminists reject other sociological approaches as they deem them to be male-stream. Feminists argue that women are suppressed within the family structure. There are various branches of Feminism and as such, Marxist-Feminists and Radical Feminists view the family as conflict ridden.

Marxist-Feminism criticises Marxism itself for failing to explain why women are worse off than men within the family and society as a whole. They view this as gender subjugation and argue that women are exploited because they are expected to provide unpaid domestic labour within the home.

Radical Feminists say that the social institution of family allows men to dominate women and highlight that there are extreme forms of this domination such as rape and murder.

Feminism places great emphasis on the domestic role of women and highlight the stress and strains placed upon them now that they are part of the economic workplace. Feminists would say that the ‘double burden’ of paid and unpaid work contributes to marital breakdown.

Again, there are strengths and weaknesses to their approach.

Feminism plays an extremely important role in highlighting women’s issues within society and, in particular, within the family.

In contrast, Feminism as a whole is criticised for over emphasising the negative aspects of the family. Those in opposition to the feminist approach draw attention to the fact that many women are happy to fulfil traditional family roles such as child rearing.

There have been many studies that look at the social institution of the family. Firstly we will look at the Sigle-Rushton (2010) study ‘Men’s Unpaid Work and Divorce: Reassessing Specialisations and Trade’.

This study focused on the link between the amount of work that men did at home and divorce. The researchers looked 3,500 families. Some of those were dual-earner families and the rest were families where the women stayed at home.

They found that in 1975 just over half of fathers helped with one or no tasks within the home. Around a quarter carried out 2 tasks and a quarter carried out three or four tasks.

From this they found that the risk of divorce was 97% higher in those families where the father did little or no household tasks compared to those families where the mother stayed at home and the father did little or no housework.

They noted that the likelihood of divorce did not increase in the dual-earner households when the father contributed to the housework bringing equality to the conjugal roles.

This highlights that women often have the ‘double burden’ of paid and unpaid work. Therefore, if the father does not contribute to the housework the risk of divorce is much higher.

One strength of this study is that it acknowledges that the levels at which men contribute to unpaid work is an important factor in understanding rising divorce rates. Previously the rise in divorce rates was attributed to women working outside the home (Allan and Crow (2001) imply that women may be responsible for increasing divorce rates as they file more petitions now they are financially independent). This study has helped to redress the balance.

However, this study can be viewed as somewhat dated as it focuses on families that had their first child in 1970 and therefore it can be argued that it does not reflect modern male behaviour.

Another study is Scott J. (2010) ‘Gender Inequality in Production and Reproduction’.

This study focused on the implications of families being dual-earner families. Professor Scott said that families are controlled by gender attitudes and stereotypes and said that these wider issues could impact on family life and their well-being.

Professor Scott looked at UK attitude surveys over the last 30 years and found that men and women believe that the family is suffering due to the dual-earner nature of households. This view is supported by the Rowntree Foundation (2002) who says that marital happiness and family life suffers in dual-earner families and this can be compounded by one parent doing shift work.

Over half of men and women surveyed in 1994 thought that women working outside the home did not impact of the family however this figure fell to 46% of men and 42% of women in 2002.

One strength of this study is that it associates conjugal roles and family well being to things like conceptualised gender roles and legislation and acknowledges that these can assist or obstruct couples from achieving a work/life balance.

However, this study has been criticised for failing to identify any differences in social class groupings. Research by Oakley (1974) showed that there are differences in terms of conjugal roles between working and middle class families.

As we can see, Sigle-Rushton has highlighted the fact that dual-earner families are at greater risk of marital breakdown if conjugal roles are unequal. Scott found that marital welfare is suffering due to a women’s ‘double burden’ of paid and unpaid work which has arisen because more women work outside of the home.

It would appear that these studies support both the Functionalist and Feminist approaches to the family.

As we know, Functionalists believe that the nuclear family is the best type for raising children and for society as a whole. These studies show that maintaining the nuclear family is achievable providing that conjugal roles are equal.

Feminists actively promote women working outside of the home and becoming financially independent as this aides them in becoming less oppressed by men. The studies show that this movement is happening in contemporary UK society and this is one of the most important changes to the family.

Feminists now need to address the question of equal conjugal roles in the home as, although women are now active in the workplace, this has created a ‘double burden’ of work that may lead to dissatisfaction within the marriage, perhaps resulting in divorce.

Likewise, Functionalists must also address the question of equal conjugal roles to avoid rising levels of divorce in the UK. They must accept that the only way that the nuclear family structure may survive is by adapting to that of the dual-earner family and addressing the subsequent issues that arise.

In conclusion, whilst the evolution of dual-earner families may indeed contribute to the rise in divorce rates within the UK, it can be surmised that it is not the creation of dual-earner families in themselves that facilitates this increase. The issues surrounding conjugal roles that arise due the change in family dynamics within the home and the resulting conflict may be a compounding factor in aiding the decision to file for divorce. These areas should be examined further in order to give greater understanding of rising divorce rates.


Divorce Reform Act (1971), cited in Haralambos, M; Holborn, M; and Heald, R (2004), Sociology Themes & Perspectives, p. 523, 6th Edn. Haper Collins: London

Graham Allan & Graham Crow (2001), cited in Haralambos, M; Holborn, M; and Heald, R (2004), Sociology Themes & Perspectives, p. 521-522, 6th Edn. Haper Collins: London

Legal Aid Advice Act (1949), cited in Haralambos, M; Holborn, M; and Heald, R (2004), Sociology Themes & Perspectives, p. 523, 6th Edn. Haper Collins: London

Murdock (1949), Social Structure, cited in Haralambos, M; Holborn, M; and Heald, R (2004), Sociology Themes & Perspectives, p. 466, 6th Edn. Haper Collins: London

Times Online (2010), ‘Husbands who help in house less likely to divorce’. The Times Online, 13 May

(Accessed 24 May 2011)