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Representations of Divorce in the British Press of the 1990s

This article by Agnieszka Turek is based on her MA thesis from Dr. Zbigniew Mazur's Seminar in British Studies at the Uniwersytet Warszawski. The article will also appear in a forthcoming publication, a collection of MA papers, entitled Studying "New" Britain: Popular Culture and Ideology, and edited by Dr. Mazur and Professor Irmina Wawrzyczek.


The history of marriage breakdown and divorce is almost as long as the history of marriage itself. As Voltaire put it, "divorce probably dates from the same time as marriage. I think, though, that marriage is a few weeks older, that is to say that a man fought with his wife after a fortnight, beat her after a month, and that they separated after living together for six weeks." Whatever the broader merits of Voltaire's speculation, it does at least highlight the need to give social and cultural depth to phenomena that are often thought to be peculiar to modern times.[1]

Nowadays, high divorce rates become one of the characteristics of modern Western societies. The United Kingdom has the second highest, after Belgium, divorce rates in Europe, where almost half of marriages end in divorce. At present, in the United Kingdom, divorce has in practice become an administrative rather than a judicial procedure and its huge numbers make divorce a speedy and impersonal process.[2] High divorce rates in the UK have provoked various reactions. Some observers have interpreted the high figures of divorce as indicating the decline, and eventual disappearance, of marriage and the family. Others regard high divorce rates as part of an emerging marriage pattern in which many, perhaps most, men and women will marry twice or more during their lifetimes. The general assumption is that the increase in marital dissolution rates is largely affected by the change of the attitudes towards marriage and divorce as observed in the UK.

Divorce has become a common experience in British society, which is reflected in the media, where divorce has become a popular topic to cover. The press is a valuable source of texts concerned with divorce in the UK. However nobody has tried as yet to study analytically the representations of divorce they construct. The aim of my paper is, therefore, to fill this thematic gap in the British media studies by attempting to reveal the cultural meanings associated with divorce from its textual representations in the British press.

One of the main reasons for choosing British newspapers as the primary source of my research is the power and reality-defining role of the press. It is largely connected with the function it performs of making the reader an indirect witness to events of which he/she often has no first-hand knowledge or experience.[3] Yet, what is particularly important from the cultural perspective is the fact that the news offered in newspapers is a manufactured product, not only in the sense that it is contrived, but in the sense that it is the product of a culturally encoded and socially determined process, which displays, in its content and form, the technical and ideological forces bearing on its construction.

The concept of representation used in cultural studies assumes that the media constructs meanings about the world – they represent it, and in doing so, guide the audiences in making sense of it. Representations in popular texts appeal to the readers only if they correspond to their own experience and perceptions of reality. Thus, the people, places and events are represented through common, familiar or dominant images and ideas, and thus they reflect the beliefs and values typical for a society’s culture. In the press, language, typography, the position of the text as well as other various tools are used to construct representations and to convey an ideology, which broadly speaking refers to a set of ideas which produces a partial and selective view of reality.[4] The following analysis of the use of these tools in the selected issues of two British national papers will help to discover the cultural meanings and social ideas concerned with divorce, encoded in its representations. The way in which the phenomenon of divorce in the UK is represented will allow me to generalise about British attitudes to divorce and to conclude about the reasons for the change of meanings and attitudes towards marriage and divorce and, consequently, to family forms. 

The research material comes from the 1999-2000 issues of the Sunday Mirror, a British Sunday tabloid newspaper, and the Guardian, a British daily broadsheet newspaper[5]. The Sunday Mirror belongs to the category of popular press, whereas the Guardian represents quality papers, but both are situated left of the centre in their political outlooks. The circulation figures of the populars are decidedly higher than those of the qualities. The Sunday Mirror is the second after the News of the World, and before People, with a daily circulation of nearly 3,000,000 copies sold each week whereas the Guardian is second in the category of quality dailies after the Daily Telegraph and before the Independent, with a daily circulation of over 750,000 in the' 90s.[6] The popularity of the Sunday Mirror and the Guardian suggests that they largely meet the expectations of two different sections of the British reading public, which makes them jointly a valuable analytic source of cultural knowledge about a broad spectrum of British society. On the other hand, the choice of two papers so different in many respects gives a chance for comparing their representations of divorce and thus discover a variety/uniformity of popular attitudes and ideas currently existing in British culture.

The choice of a Sunday tabloid and a daily quality created a lack of symmetry in the research material, of which I am well aware. However, there was a simple practical reason for selecting the Sunday Mirror, rather than its daily equivalent: very limited access to British tabloid press. The use of the Sunday Mirror instead of, for example, the Daily Mirror as a primary source can limit to some extent the validity of my comparison. However, we can assume that the Sunday Mirror is close to the Daily Mirror in its choice of topics, the main ideological line and the type of readers. Thus the general conclusions will probably not be significantly distorted by the quantitative incompatibility of the sources.

The methodological framework for this project is based on inter-disciplinary practices developed in the field of British Cultural Studies, where most of the analytical techniques are taken from linguistic, literary, and media studies. Therefore, to decipher representations of divorce, it is necessary to apply content analysis, semiotic interpretation, critical discourse analysis, and close reading technique. Discourse analysis is helpful in examining connections between linguistic structure and the meaning it encodes. Structural-semiotic analysis will help me to decipher the sign systems and their patterning in the studied texts in order to conclude about the ideological effects of the patterns identified. Semiological analysis will be particularly useful in analysing the visual material accompanying articles on divorce. The type of newspaper often conditions the choice of analytical tools in this study. The Guardian, for instance, often provides the reader with direct opinions and comments on the subject of divorce. Therefore, close reading and thematic analysis appropriated from literary studies as well as some elements of critical discourse analysis turned out to be more useful methods in dealing with such texts than semiotic interpretations.

Ultimately, with the help of the above procedures, I want to show how the British press reflects, creates and reinforces the ideology of divorce in British culture. Ideology is circulated in a variety of ways. It enters the newspaper texts from the outside and is reworked in them in a dynamic process of expressing a particular point of view by the journalists, editors, and photographers. The ideological content of newspaper texts further reinforce, perpetuate or subvert the prevailing ideological viewpoints on a given issue. My analysis aims at illustrating the ideological mechanisms underlying the coverage of the topic of divorce, with their implications concerning the current function of marriage and family.


Representations of divorce in the Sunday Mirror

The research material for the analysis comes from 18 issues of the Sunday Mirror (March 5, May 14, 28, August 6, 27, September 3,17, October 1, 8, 29, November 12, 19, 26, December 3, 10, 2000 and February 11, March 4, 25, 2001). The choice of the articles has been based on their direct reference to divorce, divorcees or a terminated marriage. A small number of them refers directly to the process of divorce, while most of them are accounts of the circumstances of breaking up a marital union or descriptions of the life situation of the spouses after divorce.     

Divorce is presented from the husband's point of view only in two articles. In the other articles women speak about the dissolution of their marriage, which can imply that divorce is mainly a women's issue, affecting them emotionally and financially. What is more, a common narrative structure of the articles is observed. In a typical Sunday Mirror story, a couple live together for two, three or even more years after marriage. Then the wife becomes dissatisfied with her husband and marriage. She complains about the emotional gap between her and her husband or about his excessive demands. She is also dissatisfied with the fact that her husband does not help her in housekeeping and child rearing. Her dissatisfaction builds up silently till the moment when her husband does something unbearable, for instance, behaves aggressively or betrays her. At this point she no longer wants to tolerate her unhappy life and decides to terminate their marriage. Thus, in all the articles but one, the man is blamed for the break-up, while the woman makes the decision to divorce.

As far as the position of the texts in the newspapers and typography are concerned, the articles take up the whole page and make use of photographs in a certain pattern. They usually include one up to three small black and white wedding pictures in the background, in which the newlyweds are smiling, and one large picture of the female divorcee. In most of the large photographs the ex-wife is presented as an attractive, smiling, and fashionably dressed woman. This can connote certain meanings to the reader, for instance, that divorce is not a disaster that destroys the rest of one’s life or that the decision to terminate the marriage was right and brought back happiness. Photographs 1, 2, and 3  leave no doubts about who the hero of the article is: a divorced woman. This is achieved by the size and lay-out of the photographs in the texts. A large photograph of an attractive smiling divorcee dominates the page, while the small size of the wedding pictures in the background belittle the importance of the relationship and marriage. The well-being and psychological comfort of the “liberated” divorcee matter more than those of the married couple.

Another interpretation is also possible, namely that the small pictures symbolise the past married life of the divorced woman, which is now far behind her. The fact that she is smiling and glowing suggests that she is happy to have put the past behind her and that the past relationship is no longer significant for her. The smile and cheerfulness of the woman in the wedding and post-divorce picture are also meaningful. She is as happy living on her own, after divorce, as she was on her wedding day. Thus, the decision to divorce was right and each woman unhappy in her married life should consider divorce to be happy again.

In the headlines of the articles the woman is the subject or the point of reference, which is evident in the following examples. The articles are numbered for easier reference in the course of the analysis:

1)  TV Vanessa pulls the plug on her husband.”[7]         

2)  "Vanessa set to lose home to pay cheating husband so as to give him another         400.000 pounds."[8]

3)  “Funny... my Ricky was just like Jim Royle: He would moan at the TV, break wind and crack jokes...but he was so selfish, mean and moody. I was glad to get rid of him[9]

 4) “Beautiful Nina Carter tells how her marriage to Rick Wakeman became
a sham – and finally came to an end by e-mail.” [10]

5)  "Cricketer's wife Judy Butcher tells for the first time how she forgave Mark's cheating ways – until she discovered his mistress was pregnant."[11]

 6)  Kerry Ross tells of the moment she caught husband Paul in one betrayal too many: I came face to face with his other woman...and finally knew that my marriage was over.”[12]

The husband is treated and functions as an object, which is clearly visible in the grammatical structure of the headlines, where the wife is a grammatical subject of the sentence.





1) TV Vanessa

her husband

2) Vanessa


3) I [Marlene Tomlinson]

Him [Ricky Tomlinson]

6) she [Kerry Ross]

husband Paul


The newspaper accepts the subject–object relation of the wife to her husband, which, in consequence, implies the relative positions of the man and woman in marriage. In all the sentences the woman is an agent, and the action verb is assigned to her: (1) pulls the plug on, (2) to get rid of, (3) tells, (4) tells (5) forgave, discovered, (6) caught, whereas the passive role is assigned to the man. The presence of the circumstances of divorce in the headlines plays an accusatory role by pointing out the men’s adultery or intolerable behaviour, which makes him guilty of divorce. The transitivity variance[13] used in the headlines suggests that the wife was instrumental in terminating the marriage in response to her husband's adultery or unacceptable behaviour. The effect of this linguistic operation is striking if we realise that as a matter of fact in each article it is the man who hurts the woman and 'provokes' her actions. Owing to transitivity, the wife is placed in a superior position over her husband who is to blame for the termination of marriage. Consequently, it seems that it is a woman who controls the situation, and divorce is a step she is expected to take in case of her husband's serious misbehaviour.

The analysis of the verbs in the headlines also shows that divorced women are eager to share their stories of marital failure. This is evident in headlines number 3, 4, 5, and 6, where either direct speech or the verb tell are used. They suggest that a marital breakdown and divorce are nothing to be ashamed of as even women who were betrayed by their husbands speak openly about their predicament and the positive effects of their decision to divorce (4), (5), (6). Consequently, the dissolution of marriage is presented as an acceptable and even a beneficial solution, especially for women. 

A simple vocabulary analysis of the headlines shows how they are used to categorise people and to predicate attributes to them. Thus, the men’s guilt is reinforced by specific lexical choices, especially adjectives and nouns with negative connotations. They refer mainly to the husband, some of them relate to marriage, for instance: (2) cheating husband, (3) he was so selfish, mean and moody, (4) marriage to Rick Wakeman became a sham, (5) Mark's cheating ways. The use of the “negative” vocabulary shapes the reader's attitude towards the issue. In the Sunday Mirror the blame for the divorce and for the conflict is put on the man whereas the woman have no choice but to reject the role of the passive victim

            In many ways the Sunday Mirror articles promote the concept of marriage as
a temporary relationship. This is evident in the articles “Beautiful Nina Carter tells how her marriage to Rick Wakeman became a sham,”[14] “Funny my Ricky was just like Jim Royle,”[15] “How we learned to date again”[16] and “We were all married and divorced by 25,”[17] where three women tell the stories of their marriage and subsequent divorce. The use of the pronoun “we” in the titles, the so-called “inclusive we” of consensus, implies that divorce is a women's common experience. The reader believes that the divorce stories presented in the article, display interests and experiences which “we” share in our lives, which is a perfect example of the ideology of consensus in the Press.[18]

  In the analysed texts, the reason for divorce is the wife's unhappiness in marriage, which is caused mainly by the fact that the wife does not really love her husband. She also finds their sexual life unsatisfactory and is convinced about irreconcilable differences between them. This is exemplified in the words of three female divorcees:

 Helen Parson, a 28-year-old accountant from East Sussex who was married when she was 23 and divorced a year later:

 “There was nothing for me in this marriage. Our sex life was abysmal. We did not talk to each other or share anything in common so there was no fun in our lives.”

 27-year-old Sarah Ellis, wed at 16 when she was four months pregnant and divorced at 17:

 " I wasn't with the man I loved, I wasn't doing the job I wanted. Sex became more and more of a chore. I used to go to bed early just to avoid sleeping with him."

28-year-old Rebecca, wed at 18 and divorced when she was 22:

“On Friday night my friends at the bank used to go out drinking and I was envious. I wouldn't have swapped Rachel (their one year old daughter) for the world, but I was only 20 and I wasn't having any fun.”[19]

            It seems that these women simply became bored with their marital life. They found no fun in their relationship and the best solution was to leave the husband. It should be pointed out that the husbands in those stories did not betray or batter their wives or behave unreasonably. The message passed onto the readers is straightforward: if life with your spouse does not give you fun, sexual pleasure and satisfaction, but boredom and frustration, you should change it by getting divorced. A selfish attitude of the reminiscing women towards marriage is evident in the continuous use of the pronoun "I" and the sporadic use of the pronoun "we" relating to both spouses. The first person singular form stands for the female divorcee; its frequent use suggests both that the female ego is at the centre of the story and that the individual and her well being are the most important things. The husband, his needs and point of view are completely absent from the article.

            The concreteness of individual reference reinforced by supplying personal details such as the name, age, residence, job, and personal appearance in the photographs makes the reader believe that divorce happens often and to ordinary people. Yet the uniqueness of the ex-wives’ stories is something of an illusion. The world of marital divorce as presented by the Sunday Mirror is organised around a set of categories, rather than a random selection of unique cases. Roger Fowler explains how we make sense of the reality by categorising phenomena, including people. Therefore, having established a person as an example of a type, we think about similar people in terms of the qualities that we attribute to the category already existing in our minds. Thus, if a person is assigned to a particular category, his/her behaviour and attributes are predictable. In consequence, such a category often becomes a stereotype, widely accepted by the public. Stereotype is one of the tools used by the Press to convey ideology.[20]

 A similar categorisation process takes place, for example, in the article “We were all married and divorced by 25.” The stereotypes functioning here are those of the faithful wife and unfaithful husband behaving according to certain patterns. Personalization, that is reference to individual persons and their stories, also plays an important role in signifying and creating beliefs in the texts. The fact that the photographs and the real full names of the women as well as the details of their life are disclosed shows that these women are not afraid or ashamed of being divorcees. Quite the opposite, they seem to be proud of their decision, which, the texts suggest, proves their maturity. For example, Sarah says that “she felt nothing but relief after her divorce and if she had stayed with her husband, everybody – him, me and their son – would have had a miserable life.”[21] The categories of words related to the situation of a woman in marriage and that of a woman after divorce are set in contrast, which is an effective lexical device of shaping the reader’s attitudes towards the experience of marriage and of divorce.

Life in marriage                                  Life after divorce

abysmal                                              relief

no fun                                                  a good time

mediocre                                             exciting

hard going                                            enjoy

trapped                                                free

resentful                                              glad

a chore                                                rewarding

a miserable life                                     a wonderful new life

unhappy                                              happy



With the help of such strategies, divorce is shown in the articles as a successful and even necessary solution to the dissatisfaction with marriage.

The Sunday Mirror does not present a single female divorcee who feels sorry or embittered about her decision to divorce; on the contrary, all the women are very satisfied with their choice. Furthermore, the use of mental action verbs emphasises the woman's active role in taking the decision to divorce, for instance: 

I didn't want to wait (...), I told him I was leaving (...), I decided I wanted to leave. I told him I didn't love him and I was leaving. He was devastated and begged me to stay, but I didn't.” [22]

“I decided to call a halt to the marriage. I intend to take centre stage as loudly, confidently and vibrantly as I can. I no longer want to be the down-trodden wife.(...)”[23],

“The decision to end my marriage didn't happen in the last couple of months. It's a decision I've come to over the last 10 years.” [24]

The use of action verbs also suggests a certain position of the wife in marriage. The Sunday Mirror promotes the model of the wife who is no longer submissive, patiently serving her husband, but a strong and self-confident decision-maker. She is the woman with the right to decide about her life and about her personal happiness. Her decision to act and to change her situation for the better – by divorce if necessary – stems from the concern about the well being of an individual. It is her happiness that matters. The conflict between the individual and the family does not appear in the texts. The problem of responsibility for the family is left out. Personal happiness and self-fulfilment are values promoted in the Sunday Mirror. Significantly, it is the woman's decision to terminate marriage that seems to be promoted as a role model for female readers.

            The same article contains opinions about a temporary character of marriage. Helen, for instance, states that “Modern marriage doesn’t mean you have to be with your partner for the rest of your life.” Another woman quoted in the article presents a similar view on marriage: “Marriage is more disposable these days and that’s a good thing. People realise they don’t have to stay together if their are unhappy – they have the opportunity to change things for the better.”[25] These are no longer statements narrowly commenting their personal experience. The pronoun “you” in the first quotation and the phrase “people realise” in the second make them sound like a general truth, and thus signal a broader shift in social attitudes towards marriage and divorce.

Representations of divorce in the Guardian

The research material for the analysis comes from 33 of the 1999 and 2000 issues of the Guardian. The choice of the articles has been based on their direct reference to divorce: its legal regulations and procedures, as well as its experience by individuals.

In its articles the Guardian promotes a tolerant and unprejudiced attitude towards marital dissolution. This is evident in the texts in the section entitled “Private Lives.” The section consists of letters by the readers who present their problems to which other readers are invited to respond. In the letters related to divorce, all the responding readers directly accept marital dissolution and offer emotional support for the divorced spouses. For instance, in the letter, “How can I cope with my parents’ anger after ending my marriage?”[26] a 46-year-old woman, who divorced her husband after 24 years of marriage, with both children having left home, complains about the fact that her parents and brothers disapprove of her decision and curtailed all social contacts with her. She says that they treat her as selfish and immature for not “sticking out’ her marriage. She is indescribably hurt and feels terribly ashamed that at the age of 46 she is disapproved of and rejected by her parents. She asks the readers how she can make amends. There are five responses to the letter. In all the answers the readers support the woman’s decision to divorce and advise “enjoying and carrying on with her life.” Another woman who left her husband “after a long marriage” is the author of the letter, “Your ex-husband contests the divorce settlement – how good is your solicitor?”[27] She says that her husband wants to take revenge on her for leaving him by retaining his whole pension and refusing to move out of their house. Four readers responded to the letter. They support the divorcee and provide tips on how to win her case in the financial settlement. In a letter published on 26 November 1999, another woman describes the case of her 53-year-old sister who divorced for the second time after two years of marriage.[28] Her first marriage was dissolved in 1991 after 15 years. She has two adult children who live with her and are supportive. She has become very depressed, and suicidal. Although she has a wide circle of married and single friends, she fears growing old alone. Four readers respond to the letter. None of them regards the second divorce as something abnormal and all advise her to continue her search for the right man. The respondents admit that they have also been divorced more than once and have eventually succeeded in finding the right partner.

A similar ideological position of acceptance and tolerance is observed in the report, “Divorce magazine puts an upbeat gloss on the downside of marriage.”[29] The text advertises a new divorce magazine, New Era, which was to be launched in October 2000. The author of the text states that New Era will be the first glossy magazine filling up the gap in the market. The magazine and divorce itself are presented in positive terms, which is evident in the following statements:

“Divorce is a time for change, and we intend to approach it in a positive way to show there is life after marriage, said Lesley Neil, the editor and a divorcee.”

“Women are hungry for information about their legal and financial rights and also for emotional support. There is no one source of information that covers all those issues.”

New Era will also be entertaining, featuring women who have undergone big image changes after a divorce, such as Margaret Cook, former wife of the foreign secretary, Robin Cook and Julia Carling, the ex of the former England rugby union captain Will Carling.”[30]

The selective use of noun phrases with positive connotations, such as “magazine with handy hints,” “confidence,” “advice panel of experts,” “positive way,” “entertaining New Era” and “big image changes,”[31] is a powerful technique of conveying the Guardian's approval of the magazine and, consequently, a permissive attitude to divorce.

Furthermore, the Guardian presents divorce as a common social experience, an ordinary event that may happen to anybody, as the following sentences imply:

“Our situations sound identical. I left my husband five years ago after 24 years of marriage and two grown up children...”[32]

“You have the same problem as my husband.”[33]

“I divorced 10 years ago for similar reasons to your own and my parents' reaction was identical...”[34]

Moreover, a few passages seem to imply that the respondents looked forward to their divorces, which, according to them, should have taken place earlier:

“It took me more than eight years to get a divorce. During that time, my legal fees came to over 23,000 pounds.”[35]

“When I left my husband after a very long, unhappy marriage, the only thing I wanted was my freedom...”[36]

Divorce is presented as a longed-for release from marriage, which undermines the idea of a life-long character of a marital union. The fact that it is not the Guardian's editors but its readers who express positive opinions about termination of marriage reinforces the belief that divorce is a natural phenomenon in British society.

Furthermore, the Guardian provides new role models. Namely, it is not male but female characters who decide to terminate their marriage in most divorce cases, which is exemplified in the sentences, where specific verb phrases are used:

I left my husband ...”[37]

“When I left my husband ...”[38]

“... I wanted my freedom.”[39]

I left my husband ...”[40]

I initiated divorce proceedings ...”[41]          

            Like the Sunday Mirror, the Guardian also promotes a model of the wife who is no longer subordinate and obedient to her husband. She is no longer responsible for preserving her marriage as she has the right to make decisions about what is best for her personal life and happiness. The conflict between the interests of the individual and the good of the family does not exist here and the problem of responsibility for the family is ignored. In addition, the  female divorcee is shown as a courageous heroine making correct decisions about her life, as evident in the following statements:

“Many people stay in unhappy marriages because they haven't the guts to get out and start afresh, and I deeply admire her courage.”[42]  

“You did the right thing in leaving a loveless marriage and think about having counselling yourself to help your self-esteem.”[43]

“The female divorcee does not need to 'make amends' for her courage in ending a loveless marriage.”[44]

Moreover, in the Guardian divorce is not only an acceptable but also an advisable and right solution to problems in marriage. The following fragments present the decision to divorce in positive terms and absolve other divorcees from scruples and regrets.

“You mentioned that you are happy with your new partner. Do not jeopardise that happiness by trying to make a battle of the settlement with your husband ... For me, seven years down the line, my life with my partner is happier than I could have believed possible.”[45]

“Eventually, I received a reasonable financial settlement, remarried and made a new, much happier life.”[46]

“You've done nothing wrong, your parents and brothers have, by refusing their support. You did the right thing in leaving a loveless marriage and ultimately your parents may come to see that. Enjoy your new life.”[47]

“... I have no regrets at all about my marriage break-up and, like you, love my life now. I wish you the very best of luck with your new life. You know you have done the right thing and that is what matters.”[48]

“Tell yourself that the alternative would have been to remain in a miserable marriage until the day one of you died. Best of luck.”[49]

A simple analysis of nouns and adjectival phrases used to predicate attributes to the lives of the respondents after divorce shows distinctly positive, if not enthusiastic tones, as with: “happy with your new partner,” “happiness,” “my life with my partner is happier,” “a new, much happier life.” Positive connotation of marital dissolution created in this simple way are reinforced by the usage of sharp contrasts in describing the situation of the woman in marriage and after divorce, for example:


Life in marriage Life after divorce
an unhappy marriage happy
a miserable marriage a new, much happier life
a loveless marriage happiness
sticking it out freedom
the misery of men and women start afresh
trapped in regretted marriages a time for a change

Thus, marital dissolution is presented not as a failure but as an opportunity for changing life for the better, which can encourage women and men to terminate their unhappy marriages instead of trying to save them. The Guardian shows divorce as a natural solution to marital problems; so if the spouses find their marriage unhappy, miserable, or loveless, they should simply free themselves from it and start afresh. The newspaper presents divorce in a positive light by equating it with freedom and happiness and by ignoring completely the fact that the termination of marriage is often walking away from serious responsibilities and duties.


Two centuries ago divorce was virtually non-existent and marriage often
a lifelong prison sentence, especially for women. Even when it became easier to obtain, it was a social stigma and the cost of escape brutally high. Careers were wrecked by it and lives catastrophically overturned. Divorcees, especially female, were socially excluded and suffered the position of outsiders in their communities. If one is to judge the cultural climate surrounding divorce and divorces in today’s Britain by their representations in the British daily press, one cannot escape the conclusion that the pendulum has swung far away from the 19th-century position. Far from being a stigma in the way it used to be, divorce is now socially acceptable. Moreover, divorce seems to be fashionable, as it is the endless subject of books and newspaper articles in which the divorcee appears as a stylish and self-confident heroine of a gripping narrative, a role in which most of the readers will find themselves sooner or later in their lives. As the Sunday Mirror and the Guardian want us to believe, divorce is an acceptable and natural phenomenon. It is also an advisable and successful solution to marital problems.

The press promotes a tolerant attitude towards divorce, which is presented as liberation from the unbearable chains of marriage. Significantly, the liberation efforts are linked with women, who are depicted as heroines cutting off the marital chains, because they no longer want to “stick it out.” They are strong, successful, independent and self-confident divorcees who are not ashamed of talking about their divorce and about their dissatisfaction with the husband and marriage. The power relations in marriage have changed, which is evident in the treatment of divorce in the Sunday Mirror and the Guardian. The wife no longer fears or depends on her husband as it is she who decides to terminate the marriage. What is more, the woman is expected to seek divorce if the marriage endangers her personal happiness and self-realisation. She is no longer a submissive, overworked wife but a strong decision-maker. At the same time the husband is pushed to the background. The only role prescribed to him is the role of a culprit. He is guilty of divorce because he was unable to satisfy the emotional and sexual needs of his wife. If the woman is stuck with such an imperfect partner, she is expected to quit the relationship. 

Another cultural trend in thinking about marriage manifests itself here. It is not the happiness of the family but that of the individual that is paramount. Divorced spouses are presented as those who assert their individuality, who want to be true to themselves and find themselves after years of self-denial and misery. A successful accomplishment of the well being of the family and the well being of the individual is no longer a dilemma. The fact that the newspapers omit the subject of children in divorce suggests that the issue is not important enough for the British readers. Consequently, the papers discard family values by promoting personal happiness and the temporary character of marriage. Divorce is not presented as a tragedy or disaster but as a right and ultimately successful experience. It is also an opportunity of a change for the better as well as an escape from the mediocrity and boredom of marital life. Divorce as represented in the British press is never a failure. Failure has become a taboo. The vocabulary of marriage break-up found in the articles is concerned with relief, freedom, a good time and a wonderful new life. Thus, divorce at the end of the twentieth century is presented as an attractive lifestyle.

The ideology of divorce presented by the Sunday Mirror and the Guardian implies an ideology of marriage. In many ways the papers promote the temporary character of marriage, which is regarded as a dissoluble and ‘disposable’ relationship. It is an agreement between a man and a woman that lasts as long as everything goes smoothly and effortlessly. The concepts of hardship, endurance, duty or stability do not enter the picture. Instead, the press promotes an egoistic attitude towards the marital union, which no longer means sacrifice. What counts is personal satisfaction and sexual pleasure.

To be successful, the press must be concerned with people's actual experience and to relate to their real lives. Therefore, the ideology of divorce presented in Sunday Mirror and the Guardian reflects and reinforces social trends. The way in which divorce is presented in the press is compatible with the statistics as well as social changes in society. More and more women in the UK decide to divorce. Namely, females file over 70% of petitions for divorce and provide unreasonable behaviour of the husband as the most common ground. Undoubtedly, the popularity of feminist ideology partially contributed to such high rates. The fact that British papers do not relate to marriage in religious terms is a reflection of secularisation of the society. Marriage is regarded as a mere relationship rather than a holy sacrament, binding for life. The attitude towards divorce and marriage is further affected by the shift in the position of the woman and the man in marriage. A large number of women have entered the labour market, which has increased their financial independence. In many families men have lost their position as the breadwinner. Unemployment has forced many to stay at home and do housekeeping, while women go to work to provide for the family. This phenomenon has caused a decline of male authority, which is reflected in the articles concerned with marriage and a marital dissolution. Furthermore, the emphasis on professional career and self-realisation, in men and in women, may have the effect of treating marital and family life in the categories of competition and power play.

Finally, it seems that the ideology of divorce expressed in the British press is a mixed product consisting of elements of feminist and consumerist ideologies prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century. The media promote the notion of perfection in everyday life. A perfect wedding, a perfect marriage and a perfect husband have been made objects of desire. Lifestyle seems to be more important than the meaning of life. Consumer culture promotes the belief that people have the right to a change, to something newer, better and more enjoyable. In this context, divorce may be perceived as a perfect opportunity for change. The new British woman, liberated from her traditional role of the guardian of hearth and home, enjoying new economic and legal freedom, and seduced by consumerist ambitions, emerges from the newspaper articles as the prime agent in the cultural transformation of marriage in Britain.

[1] Roderick Phillips, Untying the Knot. A Short History of Divorce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 252.

[2] Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce. England 1530-1987 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 2.

[3] Culture, Society and the Media. eds. Maurice Gurevitch, Thomas Bennett, John Woollacott. (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 295-296.

[4] Sullivan Warren, op. cit., pp. 75-89.

[5] The source for all Guardian articles studied here is the on-line edition of the newspaper. 

[6] James O'Driscoll, Britain. The Country and Its People: An Introduction for the Learners of English  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 152.

[7] Doug Kempster, “TV Vanessa pulls  the plug on her husband,” Sunday Mirror, 1 October 2000, p. 17.

[8] Doug Kempster, “Vanessa set to lose home to pay cheating husband so as to give him another 400.000 pounds,” Sunday Mirror, 10 December 2000, pp. 10-11.

[9] Christine Challand, “Funny... my Ricky was just like Jim Royle,” Sunday Mirror, 12 November 2000, p. 16.

[10] Mark Nicol, “Beautiful Nina Carter tells how her marriage to Rick Wakeman became a sham – and finally came to an end by e-mail,” Sunday Mirror, 19 November 2000, p. 12-13.

[11] Rupert Hammer, “Cricketer's wife Judy Butcher tells for the first time how she forgave Mark's cheating ways – until she discovered his mistress was pregnant,” Sunday Mirror, 26 November 2000, p. 14-15.         

[12] Maggie O'Riordan, “Kerry Ross tells of the moment she caught husband Paul in one betrayal too many,” Sunday Mirror, 4 March 1999, p. 14.

[13] For further reference see Roger Fowler, op. cit., pp. 72-73.

[14] Nicol, op. cit.

[15] Challand, op. cit.

[16] James Happer, “How we learned to date again,” Sunday Mirror, 25 March 2000, pp. 16-17.

[17] Angela Cooke, “We were all married and divorced by 25,” Sunday Mirror, 6 August 2000, pp. 16 - 17.

[18] Fowler, op. cit.

[19] Cooke, op. cit.

[20] Ibid. Roger Fowler writes about functions of personalization which are to promote straightforward feelings of identification, empathy or disapproval; to effect a metonymic simplification of complex historical and institutional processes, and to facilitate the editing of a lengthy narrative to suit the 'frequency' of newspapers and bulletins, pp. 91-93.

[21] Cooke, op. cit.

[22] Challand, op. cit.

[23] O'Riordan, op. cit.

[24] Cooke, op. cit.

[25] Cooke, op. cit.

[26] Polly Toynbee, “How can I cope with my parents' anger after ending my marriage,” Private Lives, Guardian, 6 October 2000.

[27] Tony Levene, “Your ex-husband contests the divorce settlement - how good is your solicitor?,” Private Lives, Guardian, 19 November 1999.

[28] Marcel Berlins, “What should she choose: temporary, insecure relationships or another marriage?,” Private Lives, Guardian, 26 November 1999.

[29] Matt Wells, “Divorce magazine puts an upbeat gloss on the downside of marriage,” Guardian, 4 September 2000.

[30] Wells, op. cit.

[31] Ibid..

[32] Levene, op.cit.

[33] Toynbee, op. cit.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Levene, op.cit.

[36] Berlins, op. cit.

[37] Levene, op.cit.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Berlins, op. cit.

[40] Ibid.

[41] “Woman's tale,” Guardian, 29 October 2000.

[42] Berlins, op. cit.

[43] Toynbee, op. cit.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Levene, op.cit.

[47] Toynbee, op. cit.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

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