Divorce numbers are dropping – but so is marriage

Fewer Canadians are getting divorced, according to a new Statistics Canada report — but it might just be because more people refuse to tie the knot in the first place.

"The proportion of married couples has been steadily decreasing over the past 20 years while common-law unions are becoming more numerous," writes report author Mary Bess Kelly.

"Similar to the recent decline in marriages, the number of divorces in Canada has been declining in recent years."

The report showed an eight-percent drop in new divorce cases from 2006/2007 to 2010/2011. While British Columbia saw the smallest decline (4 per cent) and Nova Scotia the largest (22 per cent), not all provinces were studied.

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Since Statistics Canada decided to stop tracking divorce rates in 2008, the report drew from divorce cases in the civil courts of Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut — representing 66 per cent of the Canadian population.

The most recent comprehensive statistics the government agency has on divorce rates across Canada date from 2005. That year, Yukon had highest rate of divorce, followed by Alberta. The lowest rate was in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Newfoundland and Labrador. It should be noted that this data accounts for population size differences.

The shift to common-law unions seems like the most obvious explanation to divorce expert and blogger Deborah Moskovitch.

"It makes sense to me, because more and more people are choosing just to live together, which probably is the reason behind the decline," she says. "It's not like people are choosing to opt out of a relationship, but they're not making it official."

But others hope the numbers have more to do with people deciding to make things work.

"I'd like to think that it's because couples believe that they have more options, and there are more possibilities, before they make that final decision to separate," says Tracy B Richards, Toronto-based relationship therapist.

"I'd also like to believe that therapists are getting better at understanding what it is that couples actually need when they're in crisis."

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But with common-law relationships on the rise, and research showing that these unions have a higher rate of separation than marriages, the declining numbers of divorce cases might not be as good as it looks.

Richards has some poignant commentary for couples who go the common-law route.

"It's a way of pretending you're not going to have the same problems that you would have in a marriage," she warns. "And maybe in some ways you won't, but in most ways you will."

"The fact that you're not getting married, all that does, I think, is that it helps Statistics Canada to not have proper information."