Extramarital affairs are no longer the main reason for divorce, according to research suggesting that unfaithful celebrities have made infidelity more acceptable.
A study of leading family lawyers found that the most common reason for a marriage to end was couples claiming that they no longer felt in love and had “grown apart”.
The research, compiled by consultancy firm Grant Thornton, disclosed a sharp rise in pre-nuptial agreements, and evidence that many couples had merely delayed divorce in the recession, hoping for larger settlements once the economy had recovered.
According to official records, the number of divorces in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level since 1974, as fewer couples choose to marry.
The Grant Thornton research, which questioned 101 leading family lawyers, said that extramarital affairs had been the top reason behind marital breakdown every year since the survey was first conducted in 2003.
This year, however, infidelity was replaced as the most common cause of divorce by couples stating that they had simply fallen out of love with each other.
The proportion of lawyers citing extramarital affairs as the main factor for their clients’ separation – 25% – has now fallen to its lowest level since the annual survey began.
However, “growing apart” or “falling out of love” has become increasingly common and was the leading reason for marital breakdown, cited by 27% of lawyers in the survey this year.
Divorce lawyers are finding that people are no longer prepared to put up with unhappy marriages as in the past.
Other causes of marital breakdown listed in the study included one partner having a “mid-life crisis”, emotional or physical abuse, “unreasonable behaviour” and financial worries.
Louisa Plumb, from Grant Thornton UK LLP, the financial and business advisors, suggested that the changing pattern could be attributed to celebrity couples who remained together despite one partner’s infidelity.
England footballers including Peter Crouch, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney have featured in the tabloid press for their alleged infidelities yet are reported to be attempting to mend their relationships.
“We are seeing an increasing number of ‘celebrities’ putting up with alleged affairs in their marriage or relationship – with Abbey Clancy staying with Peter Crouch, and Cheryl Cole looking all set to go back to Ashley,” she said.
“It may be that this is starting to have an effect on the behaviour of couples affected by extra-marital affairs, with more marriages than before surviving a bout of infidelity.”
Christine Northam, a counsellor with Relate, said it was common for couples to say they loved each other but were no longer “in love”.
“What’s normally the case is that their relationship has slid down their list of priorities, replaced by the pressures of work, money worries or raising a family,” she said. “Relationships need attention and time to nurture otherwise couples can easily drift apart.”
The report found that six out of 10 lawyers had seen a rise in the number of couples signing pre-nuptial agreements, and expected the trend to grow following a landmark Supreme Court ruling that gave such contracts legal weight last year.
However, the report also warned that a separate judgment was likely to see more divorcing spouses get away with hiding assets from their partners in future.
According to 82% of lawyers, unhappy couples have delayed divorce due to the recession, with most believing that the reduced value of assets had been the main motivation for waiting.