Trends in Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation in the UK

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.

Marriage Statistics

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.

Marriage Rates

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.

Divorce Statistics

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.

Main sources used to write this post

Office for National Statistics: Divorces in England and Wales 2018

ONS: Marriages in England and Wales 2017

ONS: Marriage and Divorce on the Rise, Over 65 and Over.


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