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  • Writer's pictureLori Hammer

The Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Divorce Rates


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The Industrial Revolution was a period of profound change that reshaped societies around the globe. As steam engines roared to life and factories sprang up, the world moved from agrarian economies to industrial powerhouses. This massive transformation didn't just revolutionize production; it also had significant impacts on the social fabric of society, including marriage and divorce rates. Let's explore how industrialization and urbanization influenced the dynamics of marriage and led to changing attitudes towards divorce in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Shift from Rural to Urban

Before the Industrial Revolution, most people lived in rural areas and worked on farms or in small family-owned businesses. Marriages were often practical arrangements aimed at securing economic stability and ensuring the continuation of family labor. Divorce was rare, not only because of legal and religious constraints but also because the economic interdependence of marriage partners made separation difficult.


However, as industrialization took hold, people began flocking to cities in search of work. Urbanization brought about a radical shift in lifestyles. Families moved away from tight-knit rural communities to bustling urban centers where anonymity and independence were more feasible. This shift disrupted traditional family structures and created new social dynamics.

Economic Independence and Changing Gender Roles

One of the most significant impacts of industrialization was the rise of wage labor. Men, and eventually women, found employment in factories, mills, and other industrial enterprises. This economic independence was a double-edged sword for marriage. On one hand, it provided individuals, particularly women, with financial means outside the confines of marriage. On the other hand, it also meant that the economic interdependence that once held marriages together was no longer as strong.


Women entering the workforce began to challenge traditional gender roles. They gained a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency that was previously unattainable. This newfound independence contributed to changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce. Women who were unhappy in their marriages now had the financial means and social support to seek separation.

Legal Reforms and Accessibility

The Industrial Revolution also brought about significant legal reforms that made divorce more accessible. In the early 19th century, divorce laws were restrictive and heavily biased against women. However, as industrialization progressed, there was growing recognition of the need for legal changes to reflect the evolving social landscape.


In England, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 was a landmark reform that made divorce more accessible to the middle class. It allowed ordinary people to seek divorce through civil courts rather than requiring a private act of Parliament, which was prohibitively expensive. Similar reforms took place in other industrialized nations, gradually making divorce more attainable.

The Influence of Urbanization on Social Norms

Urbanization not only facilitated economic independence but also fostered social change. Cities became melting pots of diverse ideas and lifestyles. The anonymity of urban life allowed individuals to break away from traditional norms without the constant scrutiny of close-knit rural communities.


In cities, people were exposed to different ways of thinking and living, which led to more liberal attitudes towards relationships and marriage. The concept of marriage for love, rather than purely for economic or social convenience, gained popularity. With this shift came a greater acceptance of divorce as a legitimate option when marriages failed to meet emotional or personal needs.

Rising Divorce Rates: A Reflection of Societal Change

The combination of economic independence, legal reforms, and changing social norms led to a notable increase in divorce rates during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While divorce was still stigmatized and not as common as it is today, the rise in divorce rates reflected the broader societal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.


As people moved to urban areas, they were more likely to encounter diverse perspectives on marriage and divorce. The increased visibility and acceptance of divorce in cities contributed to its gradual destigmatization. Divorce became a more viable option for those trapped in unhappy or abusive marriages.


The Industrial Revolution was a catalyst for sweeping changes in every aspect of life, including marriage and divorce. The shift from rural to urban living, the rise of economic independence, the changing roles of women, and the gradual legal reforms all played crucial roles in reshaping attitudes towards divorce.


By the early 20th century, divorce had become a more accessible and acceptable option, reflecting the evolving values of a rapidly changing society. The impact of the Industrial Revolution on divorce rates highlights the complex interplay between economic, legal, and social factors in shaping human relationships. As we look back, we can see that the seeds of many modern attitudes towards marriage and divorce were sown during this transformative period in history.

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