This post explores the similarities and differences in marriage and civil partnership between same sex and opposite sex couples in England and Wales. It has been written to fit in with the A-level Sociology families and households specification.
The introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act in 2005 saw a huge number of male and female same sex couples becoming civil partners, with the yearly number of civil partnerships stabilising at just over 6000 a year in the late 2000s.
The introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014 saw a further drop, so that now there are just under 1000 civil partnerships a year, with male couples slightly more likely to form them than female couples.
It seems that marriage is taking over from civil partnerships.
The ONS reported in 2017 that ‘A total of 4,850 marriages were formed between same sex couples in 2014. Of these, 44% (2,129) were between male couples and 56% (2,721) were between female couples.’
The median duration of marriage for same-sex couples who divorced in 2018 was 3.9 years for men and 3.5 years for women. (ONS, Divorces in England and Wales 2018). 80% of divorces are to female couples!
NB there is currently very little data to go on for same sex divorces, as there are so few marriages!
One obvious difference between same-sex and opposite sex couples when it comes to children is that same-sex couples don’t have the biological requirements to create their own children between them, so they have to seek alternative options.
The NHS outlines various different pathways for same-sex parents to raise children (the same options as for opposite sex couples who can’t conceive!) including using sperm donors, co-parenting, adoption and surrogacy.
Adoption is an increasingly popular option, and the number of adoptions to same-sex couples has been increasing recently, while the number to opposite sex couples has been in decline.
This means there are increasing numbers of same-sex families, relative to opposite sex families with children.
Are there differences in the way same-sex and opposite-sex families parent their children?
Psychologist Rachel Farr recently conducted a Longitudinal Study with 100 adopted families, and found no differences in outcomes of middle-aged children between same-sex and opposite-sex families. Generally, all children were well adjusted and saw being adopted as positive, irrespective of the sexuality of their parents. (Source, study from 2019.)
By ‘outcomes’ they mean the chances of having good mental health, good educational results, not becoming a criminal etc.
This Fact Check article in The Conversation on the topic goes back further and summarises yet more research that supports the consensus that same-sex parents are as ‘good’ as opposite-sex parents. However it also reminds us that there is considerable discrimination against same-sex parents, and there are some people who will selectively publish research which seems to paint same-sex parenting in a bad light, and reminds us that we should always scrutinise such research.
This recent blog post by Marina Everri from 2016 explores the experience of being a same-sex parent in Italy, and argues that while the outcomes of children are the same, problems arise for same-sex parents and children because of discrimination from outside the family circle – in schools for example.
This much more in-depth article shows how same-sex couples in eight European countries suffer from discrimination when trying to adopt. Discrimination can be an off-putting factor which may prevent some same-sex couples from going through with adoption.
Finally, there isn’t much qualitative research on the experience of being in a same-sex family, but I did find this from Stonewall, but it’s from 2009-10!
How has childhood in the UK changed since the 19th Century, and have these changes been positive?
There have been several changes to the lives of children since the early 19th century, and we can break these down as follows:
Work – Policies which regulated and restricted child labour, leading to the eventual exclusion of children from paid work
Education – The introduction of compulsory education and the increase in both funding of education and the raising of the school leaving age.
The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare – Rather than high infant mortality rates, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.
Legislation has emerged to exclude children from a whole range of potentially harmful and dangerous acts
Children now have more money spent on them than ever – a range of specialist products and services have emerged and increased which are specifically aimed at children and child development. Link in money here.
Parents now spend more time with their children, actively engaged with ‘parenting’.
Child Welfare – The introduction of child protection and welfare legislation, and its expansion into every aspect of child services through recent Safeguarding policies.
The recent growth of the idea of ‘rights of the child’ has given children more of a voice in society.
Most people see these changes as representing a ‘March of Progress’ – they see such changes as gradually improving the lives of children by giving them more protection for the stresses of adult life. It seems that we have moved towards a ‘child centred society’.
However, there are sociologists who point to the downsides of some changes, especially in the last 50 years.
This post mainly adopts a March of Progress perspective, with the critical perspectives dealt with in my other posts on ‘Toxic Childhood’ and ‘Paranoid Parenting’. It has been written primarily for students studying the Families and Households option for A-level Sociology.
Childhood in Victorian Times
During the early 19th Century, many working-class children could be found working in factories, mines, and mills. They often worked long-hours and in unsafe conditions, which had negative consequences for their health, and could sometimes even result in children being injured or dying at work.
At home, children were also often required to take on adult-work, doing domestic chores and caring for sick relatives.
Social attitudes towards children started to change in the middle of the 19th century, and childhood gradually came to be seen more as a distinct phase of life, separate from adulthood, with children needing protecting from the hardships of adult life, especially work and provided with more guidance and nurturing through education.
These attitudes were reflected in the introduction of several social policies related to work and education, and the establishment of institutions dedicated to child welfare gradually changed the status of children
The changes below have happened over a very long period of time – from the 1830s, with the first factor acts restricting child labour, right up to the present day, with the emergence of the ‘rights of the child’, spearheaded by the United Nations.
Changes to childhood since Victorian Times: A March of Progress?
There were several ‘factories acts’ throughout the 19th century, which gradually improved the rights of (typically male) workers by limiting working hours, and many of these acts had clauses which banned factories from employing people under certain ages.
The 1833 Factories Act was the first act to restrict child labour – it made it illegal for textile factories to employ children under the age of 9, and required factories to provide any children aged 9-13 with at least 12 hours of education a week.
The 1867 Factories Act extended this idea to all factories – this act made it illegal for any factors to employ children under the age of 8 and provide children aged 8-13 with at least 10 hours of education a week.
The 1878 Factories Act placed a total ban on the employment of children under the age of 10, fitting in nicely with the introduction of education policies.
Today, children can only work full-time from the age of 16, and then they must do training with that employment. Full adult working rights only apply from the age of 18.
Children aged 13-15 can work, but there are restrictions on the number of hours and the types of ‘industry’ they can work in. Babysitting is one of the most common jobs for this age group.
The 1870 Education Act introduced Education for all children aged 5-12, although this was voluntary at the time.
In 1880 it was made compulsory for all children to attend school aged 5-12, with the responsibility for attendance falling on the Local Education Authorities.
The next century saw the gradual increasing of the school leaving age and increase in funding for education:
1918 – The school leaving age raised to 14
1944 – school leaving age raised to 15 (also the year of the Tripartite system and massive increase in funding to build new secondary modern schools)
1973 – The school leaving age increased to 16.
2013 – Children were required to remain in education or work with training until 18.
Today the UK government spends almost £100 billion a year on education, and around 500 000 people are employed in the child-education sector.
Children are expected to attend school for 13 years, and their attendance and progress is monitored intensely (some may say over-monitored) during that time, with extra support being provided depending on students’ ‘individual learning needs’.
The scope of education has also increased – the curriculum has broadened to include a wide range of academic and, later on, vocational subjects, as well as there being a focus on personal well-being and development.
The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare
Rather than high infant and child mortality rates as was the case in the Victorian era, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.
There are several more, as outlined in this child friendly version of the document…
A Child Centred Society
Changes such as those outlined above seem to suggest that our society has become more child centered over the last century or so, with children occupying a more central role than ever, with more money and time being spend on them than ever, and with children being the ‘primary concern’ of many public services and often the sole thing that gives meaning to the lives of many parents.
According to Cunningham (2006) the child centered society has three main features (which is another way of summarising what’s above)
Childhood is regarded as the opposite of adulthood – children in particular are viewed as being in need of protection from the adult world.
Child and adult worlds are separated – they have different social spaces – playground and school for children, work and pubs for adults.
Childhood is increasingly associated with rights.
If we look at total public expenditure on children, there certainly seems to be evidence that we live in a child centered society! (Source below)
Criticisms of the March of Progress View of childhood
The common sense view is to see the above changes as ‘progressive’. Most people would argue that now children are more protected that their lives are better, but is this actually the case? The ‘March of Progress’ view argues that yes, children’s lives have improved and they are now much better off than in the Victorian Era and the Middle Ages. They point to all the evidence on the previous page as just self-evidently indicating an improvement to children’s’ lives.
Conflict theorists, however, argue against the view that children’s lives have gradually been getting better – they say that in some ways children’s lives are worse than they used to be. There are three main criticisms made of the march of progress view
1. Recent technological changes have resulted in significant harms to children – what Sociologist Sue Palmer refers to as Toxic Childhood.
2. Some sociologists argue that children today are too controlled. Sociologists such as Frank Furedi argue that children today are overprotected, or too controlled – We live in the age of ‘Paranoid Parenting’.
3. There are significant inequalities between children, so if there has been progress for some, there certainly has not been equal progress.
This post explores the long and short term trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation in the United Kingdom.
It has been written as an introduction to the ‘marriage and divorce’ topic which is usually taught as the second topic within the AQA’s families and households A-level sociology specification.
Marriage and Divorce Trends: An Overview
There was a long term decrease in the number of marriages per year since the late 1960s when there were just over 400 000 marriages every year, until around 2008, when the number hit around 230 000.
There has been a slight increase since then and there are now around 240 000 marriages every year in the UK, and this number has been relatively stable since 2008.
The number of Divorces per year increased rapidly following the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, and then increased steadily until the early 1980s. In the late 1950s, there were only around 20 000 Divorces per year, by the early 1980s this figure had risen to 160 000 per year (quite an increase!)
It then stabilised for about 10 years and then started to decline in 2003, the number of divorces per year is still decline. There are currently just under 90 000 divorces per year in England and Wales.
There has been a long term decline in the number of marriages in England and Wales.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were over 400 00 marriages a year, by 2017 there were just under 250 000 marriages a year.
Although the decline seems to have slowed recently, since 2008.
The marriage rates (unsurprisingly) mirror the above – but you see a more obvious slowing down of the decline since the 2000s here.
What is the average age of Marriage?
The average age of marriage has increased from 25 for women in the 1960s to 36 for women in 2017, the average age for men is slightly higher.
The 36 average figure might be a bit misleading, the median age is slightly younger as shown by the chart below – late 20s and early 30s are when most women get married!
The Decline of Church Weddings
The above chart shows the drastic decrease in religious marriages, down to only 22% of all marriage ceremonies by 2017.
90% of couples cohabited before marrying in 2017, up from 70% in the late 1990s.
The Divorce Rate was extremely low in the late 1950s, at only 2.5 per 100 000 married couples.
The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 led to this increasing rapidly to 10 per thousand in just a few years, by the early 1970s.
The Divorce Rate continued to increase until the early 1990s, when it hit almost 15 per thousand married couples. Since then it has been falling and currently stands at 7.5
NB – The Divorce Rate shows a slightly different trend to the ‘number of divorces’ – this is relative to the number of married couples!
What percent of marriages end in divorce?
It depends on the year of marriage! If we look at the ‘peak year’, 43.9% of people who got married in 1987 were divorced by 2017, the latest figures available. NB this rate might well be going down, as marriage has been declining since 1987.
How long does the average marriage last?
The length of marriage is increasing. For marriages which end in divorce, the median length of a marriage stands at around 12.5 years.
This post outlines some of the ‘key facts’ students should know for the A-level sociology families and households topics.
The statistics below are taken from range of different topics covered as part of the families and households specification (AQA focus), and I find it useful to introduce students to them as part of the ‘introduction to families’ lesson.
The activity I use is to give students a series of cut up cards, some with the ‘fact’ and some with the ‘number’, students can then match them as a pair work activity, or you could do it as a stand up walk around whole class activity (one card per student).
The list of facts for students to puzzle out is as follows:
Insert image of card matching (cut up)
Once students have tried their best to puzzle out the correct answers, I give them a gapped answer sheet and get them to research the different sources of the data and comment on how valid they think each piece of data is, by thinking about HOW the data was collected, or how the figures were calculated.
Insert image of gapped answer sheet (link to teaching resources eventually!)
This blog post is effectively the extended answers to the above gapped hand-out.
What percentage of marriages end in divorce?
Almost 44% of marriages in 1987 had ended in divorce by the year 2018.
That 43.9% figure may sound alarming, but this is only true for marriages which took place in 1987, which is the ‘peak year’ (so far) for marriages ending in divorce.
If you look at marriages from slightly earlier years, then you get slightly lower figures. If you look at the divorce rate for the years after 1987, then the figures are also lower, and they could well stay that way because of the marriage rate declining since the late 1980s. Over time, as marriage has become more of a choice, this should lower the long-term divorce rate.
It follows that if we took an average divorce rate for several years surrounding 1987, we’d see a percentage lower than 43.9%.
So the data is valid, but only for two static years – 1987 to 2018. Any other selection of years will give you a different rate. Having said that, if you look at the lines in the graph above, they do seem to follow a predictable trend, so it’s unlikely that this figure is outright misleading! Just keep in mind it’s probably the very peak!
What percentage of households in the UK are cohabiting?
In 2018, almost 18% of family households were cohabiting compared to 67% married and 15% lone-parent.
The cohabiting family household has been one of the fastest growing household types in recent years
If you work it out per year, that’s about £8300 per year that parents are spending on their children on average, which sounds suspicious.
This might be an invalid figure because it includes housing costs, and it’s a bit dubious whether this is the actual cost, given that parents need a home to live in anyway. You can’t necessarily attribute the cost of an extra bedroom in a house to having a child as many childless couples live in houses with spare bedrooms.
It follows that a figure without housing costs might be more valid as that would be closer the money that’s spent exclusively on the child.
The report also makes it clear that the figure does not represent all families – it is more expensive for lone parent families to raise a child to age 18 – it costs them £185 000.
On average, how much more money a year does it cost to live a year if you are a single person living alone?
Single person households spend 92% of their disposable income, compared to only 83% for couples, meaning there is a 9% difference between the two.
There are four main factors which can explain for the long term increase in divorce:
Social policy changes
Changing gender roles
This post examines these factors and others.
Social Policy Changes
Social Policy changes are the first factor that explains rapidly increasing divorce in the early 1970s – the 1969 the Divorce Act extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’, making divorce possible even if only one partner wanted a divorce.
However, this cannot explain all of the increase, since the divorce rate was rising before the act, and continued to rise for many years afterwards.
We also need to look at economic factors – Increasing inequality in the UK has meant that the lower social classes now get paid less compared to rising living costs (mortgages/ bills). This means that both partners in a marriage now need to do paid work to get by, which puts a strain on the marriage which leads to higher numbers getting divorced.
A positive evaluation of this is that divorce rates are higher amongst poorer families.
There are a number of reasons linked to the Functional Fit Theory which could explain the increase in divorce:
• Functionalists such as Goode (1971) believe that conflict has increased because the family has become more isolated from other kin, placing an increased burden on husbands and wives who have little support from other relatives.
• Dennis (1975) believes that because the family performs fewer functions the bonds between husband and wife are weaker.
• Allan and Crowe (2001) point out that because the family is no longer an economic unit, this makes it easier for families to break up.
The New Right
Would claim that increasingly generous welfare benefits for single mothers is a crucial factor which allows women to divorce if they deem it necessary – because if divorce occurs within a family, in 9/10 cases, the child will go with the mother – making it difficult to find full time work – and hence benefits may be a necessary link in the chain of explaining the increase in divorce. The New Right would also see the increasing divorce rate as a sign of wider moral decline, a point of view which is not shared by the next three perspectives.
Feminism/ changing gender roles
The changing position of women in society. Is crucial to understanding the increase in divorce rates.
Women today are much more likely to be in employment today and this means they are less financially dependent on their husbands and thus freer to end an unsatisfactory marriage. The proportion of women in some kind of paid work is now 70%, whereas in the 1950s it was less than 50%
Giddens himself argues that two trends are the most important – the impact of the Feminist movement, which arguably lies behind all of the above changes, and also the advances in contraception – which allows women to avoid unwanted pregnancies – and women in marriages without children will be freer to leave those marriages. Feminists however, point out that the advances of women can be exaggerated – women still earn less than men, and traditional gender norms remain in many families.
Both religion and traditional values have declined in Britain. As a result there is no longer a set of social values which force people into staying married, there is less social stigma attached to getting a divorce and so people are freer to choose to get divorced. This change reflects the declining importance of social structure and the rise of consumer culture – the idea that individuals can choose their own lifestyles.
Giddens (1992) believes that the nature of marriage has changed because the nature of intimate relationships more generally have changed:
• In the early period of modernity in the late 18th century, marriage became more than an economic arrangement as the idea of romantic love developed. The marriage partner was idealised as someone who would perfect a person’s life. Women kept their virginity waiting for the perfect partner.
• In the era of what Gidden’s calls ‘late modernity’, plastic sexuality has developed. This means that sex can be for pleasure rather than conceiving children with your perfect marriage partner. Relationships and marriages are no longer seen as necessarily being permanent.
• Marriage is now based on confluent love – Love that is dependent upon partners benefitting from the relationship. If they are not fulfilled in their relationship, couples no longer stay together out of a sense of duty, so divorce and relationship breakdown become more common.
Ulrich Beck points out that divorce has increased because individualisation. This involves:
More opportunities for individuals, especially women, and the opportunity for individuals to take more decisions about every aspect of their lives.
Increased conflict emerging from increased choice and uncertainty which leads to chaotic relationships and helps explain the higher divorce rate.
Shulamith Firestone argues that that the main cause of gender inequality is the biological fact of childbirth – which puts women at a physical disadvantage to men.
She suggests that we need to develop an artificial womb so that women have the choice to be free from the biological necessity of childbirth.
Her best known work is the Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970.
Firestone argues that the ‘sexual class system’ was the first form of stratification – such systems existed before class based systems and capitalism.
She argues that biological differences between men and women formed the basis for a differentiated division of labour , organised into what she calls the ‘biological family’, which has four key characteristics:
Characteristics of the Biological Family
Women are disadvantaged by the biology – especially pregnancy and childbirth. When they are weakened and caring for their young children they are dependent on men (husbands, brothers, fathers) for their physical survival.)
Women’s dependency on men is severe because of the long period of time it takes human infants to mature.
The interdependence between mother and child, and both of them on men is found in every human society, and this dependency relationship produces unequal relationships.
The sexual class system forms the basis of all other class systems. Men enjoy their power over women in the biological family and seek to extend this into other realms of social and economic life.
Hence Firestone argues that the sexual class system gives rise to the economic class system (not the other way around as Engels suggested.
Women need control over reproduction for gender equality
Firestone argued that contraception was a step towards greater gender equality, because it gave women more control over when they got pregnant.
However, she argues that for full equality women needed even more control over pregnancy – that we need to develop artificial wombs so that reproduction can take place without women being physically ‘disabled’ for several months compared to men. This would be necessary to break women’s dependency on men.
Firestone didn’t argue that artificial wombs were a ‘one stop shop’ for bringing about gender equality – she argued that we would have to fight economic inequalities, power psychology and other aspects of gender inequality to, in order to achieve genuine sexual equality.
Evaluations of Firestone
The biological fact that women give birth may well go some way to explaining the widespread fact of gender equality, however, even in traditional societies, ther eare wide differences in the level of gender power inequalities, and her theory doesn’t explain these variations.
Moreover, whether we need artificial wombs for gender equality is debatable – huge steps have been made recently towards greater equality without artificial wombs.
The article below is worth a read for some further evaluations:
One of the key ideas associated with The Personal Life Perspective on the family is that are lots of differences of opinion over who counts as family. Many people regard friends, dead relatives and pets as part of their family, for example.
This post examines the extent to which people in the UK think Pets are part of the family.
More than 90% of dog and cat owners regard pets as part of the family
58.6% – of pet owners reported spending between £11 and £100 on their pet on Valentine’s Day 2020,
26% of respondents said they are more likely to buy their pet a gift than their partner.
Nearly a quarter of respondents reported they would prefer to spend Valentine’s day with their pet, rather than a love interest
This certainly seems to suggest that, for around 25% of the pet-owning population, pets are more important than their human partners.
Of course this might be because some (most?) of those respondents don’t actually have human partners! Also, the above stats have been collected by a Pet store for marketing purposes – the point being to make it seem like it’s normal to buy your pet a Valentines Day gift, so the reporting here might be selective to give the misleading impression that pets are more important than human partners, rather than pets being a kind of surrogate for a human partner.
Pet posts on social media
The Facebook Group: Our Pets are Family is certainly supporting evidence for the Personal Life perspective. Most of the posts are about pets that have been lost or stolen (yes, dog theft is a ‘thing’!), but with only 2.1K members, this doesn’t seem to be that representative of all pet-owners.
And I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of other pet related social media posts!
What do you think?
If you can think of any other pieces of evidence that either support or criticise the view that ‘pets are part of the family’ then drop links in the comments!
This post has been written to help students evaluate the Personal Life Perspective, which is part of the families and households module for A-level Sociology.
While social class and income levels are not the same thing, I’ve had to use Income as a ‘proxy’ for social class given that the research tends to look at family variation by income rather than class more generally.
Middle class couples are more likely to get married than working class couples
According to The Spectator there is a social class ‘marriage gap’ – those in the top class (professional/ managerial) are 48% more likely to get married than those in the bottom social class (cleaners).
Poor teens are much more likely to get pregnant and have babies than rich teens
According to The Poverty Site, teenage motherhood is eight times as common amongst those from manual social background as for those from managerial and professional backgrounds.
Also, the underage conception rate is highest in the North East of England. Its rate of 11 per 1,000 girls aged 13 to 15 compares to 6 per 1,000 in the region with the lowest rate.
Professional women have babies later than ‘working class’ women’
According to ONS research from 2014 (yes, even in 2020 you have to go back this far to find it), professional women tend to have babies later than ‘working class’ women.
Only 3% of births to women under 30s are to women in higher managerial or professional classifications, but this figure rises to 14% for women over 40.
NB – the above doesn’t factor in how many women are in each category of social class, I include that table below…
So it’s difficult to tell from the above! But it does seem that the higher up the social class scale you go, the later in life women have babies!
Previous research from the Uni of Southampton found that half of women born in 1958 who obtained no educational qualifications had a child by the age of 22, while for those with degrees the age was 32.
This means that the term ‘generation’ could actually mean different things to different classes.
Variations in ‘Life Paths’ by Social Class (American focus)
Research published in 2017 by Opportunity America shows considerable variation in marriage and divorce rates, and ‘life paths’ by social class.
The research divides ‘social classes’ by ‘poor’ ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ and shows that:
56% of people aged between 18-55% in the Middle and Upper classes were currently married, compared to only 26% of those who were ‘poor’.
Despite having lower marriage rates, the ‘poor’ also had higher divorce rates: 46% of ‘poor’ 18-55 year olds had ‘ever been divorced’ compared to only 30% of middle-upper classes.
The fertility rates also vary, being 2.4 and 1.7 respectively for the above two groups.
The Life Paths also vary, as below:
NB I quite like the above chart, it’s go a hint of the personal life perspective, life-course analysis about it!
Questions to consider
The final piece of research is from America, to what extent would you expect to find similar variations in family life by social class in the UK?
Give the lack of contemporary data, how might you track the relationship between social class and family life more accurately?
Thoughts and comments
There is only limited data available on the relationship between social class and family life – so much so that you often have to go back almost a decade to find the latest research. It’s very much a gap in official statistics!
Using ‘Income’ data rather than class data is a limitation of the research, the same limitation as when using Free School Meal data as a proxy for social class in the differential educational achievement debate.
Sometimes it is even impossible to find data on the relationship between income and family life – for example, there are no official statistics collected on the relationship between income and divorce, according to this response to a question from the ONS.
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