This post examines the effects of declining in marriage and increasing divorce. Have women benefitted from these changes like some Feminists suggests. Are these trends signs of moral decline like the The New Right suggest, or are these trends just part of the broader process of individualisation and increasing reflexivity and nothing to worry about?
What replaces married couples?
- Probably the most fundamental thing is that people’s attitudes towards marriage have change. The idea that marriage is a necessary tradition or a sacred duty have declined drastically, marriage is now seen as a choice.
- There is greater family and household diversity as a result.
- Despite the decline of marriage, most people still ‘couple up’ – cohabitation has increased.
- Cohabiting couples are more likely to break up, so relationships have become more unstable. A related factor here is that serial monogamy, rather than out and out promiscuity throughout one’s life appears to be the new norm.
- High levels of divorce create more single parent households and more single person households, as well as more reconstituted families
- Finally, it is important not to exaggerate the decline of marriage – most households are still headed by a married couple.
Feminists would generally see the decline of marriage as a tradition as a good thing, because traditional marriage is a patriarchal institution. Most divorces proceedings are initiated by women which suggests that marriage works less well for women than for men.
However, Radical Feminists would point out that the increase in divorce has not necessarily benefited women – as children go to live with the mother in 90% cases following a divorce, and single parent families (mostly female) suffer higher levels of poverty and stigma.
The New Right/ Functionalists
Would interpret these trends in a negative way, as indicating a decline in morality, and a breakdown of social structure and order – the family is supposed to be the fundamental building block of society, and it is difficult to see what will replace it. Without the family we risk less effective primary socialisation and more problem children as well as more anomie for adults.
The decline of marriage and increase in divorce reflect the fact that we are part of a consumer society where individual choice is central to life. The end of the ideology of the nuclear family is seen as good, and Postmodernists tend to reject the idea that the traditional married nuclear family is better than other family forms, so these trends are not a significant problem for either the individual or society.
People still value marriage but changes in the social structure make it harder to start and to maintain stable relationships – greater gender equality means it’s harder to please both partners, and the fact that both people have to do paid work doesn’t help with the communication required to keep a relationship going, or help with people getting together in the first place.
People now delay getting married not only because of needing to establish a career first, but also because of the increased cost of mortgages and weddings, and because of the increased fear of getting divorced – with cohabiting the new norm before marriage.
New institutions also emerge to help us cope with the insecurities of modern relationships – marriage guidance and pre-nuptial agreements are two of the most obvious.
In short, marriage is not about to disappear as an institution, but it’s not an easy path to pursue either.