How do we explain the decline in marriage?

The main trend in marriage in the UK is that of long term decline. This post examines some of the reasons behind this, such as changing gender roles, the increasing cost of living and individualisation

long term decline in marriage

Last Updated on June 14, 2024 by Karl Thompson

Sociological explanations for the long term decline in marriage include changing gender roles, the impact of feminism and female empowerment, economic factors such as the increasing cost of living and the individualisation associated with postmodernism.

This post has been written for the families and household topic within A-level sociology. ..

The decline in marriage in the UK

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 2019, there were just under 220 000 marriages, which is a significant decreased from even just two years earlier in 2017 when there were just under 250 000 marriages a year.

graph showing decline in number of UK marriages from 1929 to 2019

Marriages in England and Wales 2019 (published in 2022).

The above graph only shows the long term overall decline in marriage. Other trends include:

  • People are more likely to cohabit (although in most cases this is a step before marriage).
  • People are marrying later.
  • The number of remarriages has increased.
  • Couples are less likely to marry in church.
  • There is a greater diversity of marriages (greater ethnic diversity and civil partnerships).
  • There has been a very recent increase in the marriage rate.
  • For a fuller account of trends in marriage please see: trends in marriage, cohabitation and divorce.

Evaluation Point – Even though it’s declining, marriage is still an important institution because….

  • Most households are still headed by a married couple.
  • Couples may cohabit, but this is normally before getting married – they just get married later.
  • Most people still think marriage is the ideal type of relationship.
  • The fact that remarriages have increased show that people still value the institution of marriage.

Lockdowns decreased the number of marriages

It goes without saying that the Lockdowns in 2020 decreased the number of marriages, having an immediate impact by halving the marriage rates for 2020, but one might expect these rates to bounce back up to their 2019 levels (or just below) by 2023.

Lockdown had no immediate impact on the divorce rates, see (1) below.

Explaining the long term decrease in marriage

reasons for changes in marriage mind map

Economic Factors

Economic factors include the increasing cost of living and the increasing cost of weddings.

Increasing property prices in recent years may be one of the factors why couples choose to get married later in life. The average deposit on a first time home is now over £30 000, with the average cost of a wedding being around £18 000. So for most couples it is literally a choice between getting married in their 20s and then renting/ living with parents, or buying a house first and then getting married in their 30s. The second option is obviously the more financially rational.

Changing gender roles

Liberal Feminists point to changing gender roles as one of the main reasons why couples get married later. More than half of the workforce is now female which means that most women do not have to get married in order to be financially secure.

In fact, according to the theory of the genderquake, the opposite is happening – now that most jobs are in the service sector, economic power is shifting to women meaning that marriage seems like a poor option for women in a female economy.

The New Right

The New Right blame the decline of marriage on moral decline – part of the broader breakdown of social institutions and due to too much acceptance of diversity. This results in the inability of people to commit to each other, and they see this as bad for society and the socialisation of the next generation.


Postmodernists explain the decline in marriage as a result of the move to postmodern consumer society characterised by greater individual choice and freedom. We are used to being consumers and picking and choosing, and so marriage is now a matter of individual choice.

Another process associated with Postmodernisation is the decline of tradition and religion (secularisation). Marriage used to be a social expectation, but this is no longer the case and as a result there is less social stigma attached to cohabiting or remarrying after a divorce.

Late Modernism

Late Modern Sociologists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck argue that the decline in marriage is not as simple as people simply having more freedom. People are less likely to get married because of structural changes making life more uncertain. People may want to get married, but living in a late-modern world means marriage doesn’t seem like a sensible option.

Ulrich Beck argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.

Beck also talks about indivdualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.

Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.

Evaluation Points

  • The decline of marriage is not as simple as it just being about individual choice.
  • There are general social changes which lie behind its decline.
  • We should not exaggerate the decline of marriage (see details above).

Test Yourself 

Signposting and Related Posts 

This topic is part of the families and households module and related posts include:

Trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation UK.

For a more ‘human explanation’ check out this video – sociological perspectives on the decline in marriage.

Explaining the Long Term Increase in Divorce – Essay Plan.

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(1) Office for National Statistics (2023) Marriages in England and Wales 2020

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