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Breakups in Britain, 1971 - 1993

This is a history of breakups in Britain that charts the period between the implementation of no-fault divorce in 1971 and the peaking of marriage rates a year later, and the cresting of the divorce rate in 1993. It asks: what was the cultural, emotional and therapeutic terrain facing the broken-hearted – divorced as well as never-married – in a period of rapid sexual change and unprecedented marital breakdown? What were the terms in which people of various ages and national, ethnic and class backgrounds made sense of romantic relationships, and strove to manage their painful endings? In focusing on relational fracture, this project builds on my previous work on singleness and the dating industry in late 20th century Britain, and is underpinned by the conviction that the management of breakups, like that of singleness, is key to understanding the psychological and emotional models integral to modern intimate life. Historians of romantic relationality and emotion in post-war Britain have focussed on aspects of relationship formation: selfhood and aspiration, sexual scripts and shifts in matrimonial custom. But in the final decades of the 20th century, crisis emerged as a dominant theme in relational life. Understanding how the romantically-sundered managed such failure, during a period in which expectations surrounding intimate relationships had dramatically intensified, is the aim of this project. 


I follow two main lines of enquiry. The first investigates how experts classified, scientised and normalised relationships, including in relation to the legal aspects of divorce reform. The second asks how individuals caught in the flow of confusing new social processes tried to understand themselves – and the psychological experts who were constantly addressing them – in relation to their romantic failures.