Kōrero: Divorce and separation

Whārangi 2. Growth in divorce: 1898–1979

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Finding fault and punishing wrong-doing within marriage were central concepts in divorce. Over the 20th century these attitudes slowly weakened, but public and parliamentary debate was fierce when the terms of marriage were challenged or blame was left aside.

Loosening law

From 1898 the grounds for divorce were widened. In the late 19th century the women’s movement campaigned for divorce to be equally available to men and women. Parliament responded with the Divorce Act in 1898. Adultery alone became enough for either men or women to be divorced. New grounds included:

  • five years’ desertion
  • refusal to cohabit when ordered to by the Court
  • drunkenness and failure to support the family (husband) or drunkenness and neglect of domestic duties (wife)
  • seven or more years’ imprisonment for the attempted murder of one’s spouse.

Climbing rates

The number of divorces climbed through the 20th century, from 111 in 1900 to more than 7,000 in 1980. Growth in the rate was generally steady, with jumps occurring when new grounds became available, wars ended, or government benefits became available to divorced women.


Most marriages that broke down were handled by a magistrate’s court, using laws relating to desertion rather than divorce. From 1910 women could apply for separation and guardianship orders as well as maintenance and protection. From 1939 men were also able to apply for these orders.

Until 1940 a separation and maintenance hearing at a magistrate’s court was a miserable and public experience. Applicants waited in sordid and uncomfortable witness rooms, then told an open court details of marriage breakdown and sometimes poverty. Their lives were dealt with alongside charges of drunkenness, petty theft and casting offensive matter. From 1940 matrimonial cases were heard separately and in closed court.

A routine divorce

By the 1950s divorce had become routine for some people. One married woman in her early 30s deceived and betrayed her husband a number of times, then took their child and went to Sydney to live with a wealthy lover. When her husband pleaded with her to return, she replied, ‘All this is very boring to me and I’m already late for the hairdresser’s.’ 1 After their divorces were finalised, she and her lover married, both of them for the fourth time.


In order to get a divorce one of the partners had to be in the wrong. Most grounds for divorce clearly identified a guilty party – the 1907 act, for example, allowed the divorce of a partner who had murdered or attempted to murder the child of the other spouse. New reasons of this kind were easily accepted.

Allowing divorce because of long-term mental illness provoked serious discussion amongst parliamentarians. A person with mental illness was not choosing to behave badly, and marriage was for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Those in favour won the day when two of three prominent doctors consulted said that mental illness was hereditary and those with it should not be allowed to marry.

There was public outrage in 1920 when it became possible for the guilty party to apply for, and be granted, divorce. Divorce was intended to punish the guilty, not act as a reward for bad behaviour. A law change in 1921 meant courts had to refuse a divorce if the person applying was found to be at fault.

Who got divorced

Divorce was studied from the 1950s onwards, and some factors were found to increase its likelihood. Couples married at a young age, particularly if the woman was already pregnant, were more likely to divorce. The less well-educated were more likely to divorce than the highly educated.

Northern influence

In the 1950s people living in the North Island were more likely to get divorced than those in the South Island. This bewildered experts. Perhaps, they suggested, the rapid population growth in the north was unsettling, encouraging divorce among some who then influenced others to do the same.


As the number of divorced people in the community increased, the number remarrying rose. Divorced women were more likely to remarry than divorced men. This difference may have been a result of the need for economic security when raising children.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Rutherford Ward, ‘Parental misconduct and the custody of children.’ In Family law centenary essays, edited by B. D. Inglis and A. G. Mercer. Wellington: Sweet & Maxwell, 1967, p. 58. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Megan Cook, 'Divorce and separation - Growth in divorce: 1898–1979', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/divorce-and-separation/page-2 (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Megan Cook, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 8 Nov 2018