Last Updated on October 2, 2023 by Karl Thompson
There has been a long term decline in marriage and increase in divorce in the UK since the 1970s to the 2020s. Different sociological perspectives emphasise different consequences of these social changes:
- Feminists generally see these trends as positive, reflecting the greater empowerment of women.
- The New Right and Functionalists view the decline in marriage and increase in divorce as bad because they represent the breakdown of the social order and increase in potential social problems.
- Postmodernists don’t see these trends as a problem, just as part of the shift to a postmodern society in which people have more choice and freedom.
- Late modernists believe that people don’t simply choose to not get married or get divorced. Structural changes have steered them towards these decisions which are painful, disruptive and they need to manage them.
What replaces married couples?
- Probably the most fundamental thing is that people’s attitudes towards marriage have changed. People no longer see marriage as a tradition or sacred duty, they see it 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 married couple households.
Feminists would generally see the decline of marriage as a good thing, because it is a patriarchal institution. Women are more likely to initiate divorces, which suggests that marriage works less well for women than for men.
Both the decline in marriage and the increase divorce reflect the increasing empowerment and financial independence of women. When women have more money and power more of them choose to NOT marry in the first place. Women unhappy in their marriages can choose a divorce more easily today.
However, Radical Feminists would point out that the increase in divorce has not necessarily benefited women. Children go to live with the mother in 85% cases following a divorce. Single parent families (mostly female) suffer higher levels of poverty and stigma.
The New Right/ Functionalists
Both the New Right and 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. Postmodernists think the end of the nuclear family ideology is good. They 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. People may also choose to cohabit rather than marry because of the fear of divorce.
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.
See here for more on the late modern view of the family and personal life.
Signposting and Related Posts
This material is relevant to the families and households module, usually taught in year one of A-level sociology.