Trends in Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation in the UK

Since the 1960s marriage rates are down, and cohabitation and divorce rates are up!

This post explores the long and short term trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation in the United Kingdom.

Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation: Key Facts

  • There are approximately 230 000 marriages a year in England and Wales. This is down from just over 400 000 a year in the late 1980s.
  • The marriage rate halved between 1991 and 2019. For women the rate declined from 34/1000 in 2019 to just 18/ 1000 in 2019.
  • The average age for marriage is 34 for men and 32 for women. The average age of marriage is getting older. In 1967 the average ages were 27 for men and 25 for women.
  • The number of church weddings is declining. Only 18.2% of weddings were church ceremonies in 2019.
  • The number of cohabiting couples is increasing. In 2022 18.4% of families were cohabiting. This is up from 15.7% of families in 2012.
  • There has been a long term increase in the divorce rate since the 1950s. However the divorce rate declined between the early 2000s and 2018. More recently it has been increasing again.
  • In 2022 there were 9 divorces per 1000 marriages. There were a total of 113 500 divorces in 2021.

Where possible I have included data from the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) publications on marriage, cohabitation and divorce from 2023. However sometimes I have used previous publications because those show longer term trends or analyse the data in different ways.

Marriage Statistics

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.

graph showing marriage rates England and Wales 1929 to 2019.

Marriage Rates in England and Wales

The marriage rate is the number of people who get married per thousand unmarried people. The marriage rate is slightly higher for men than for women, although the difference has decreased over the last 30 years (1).

The marriage rates in England and Wales almost halved between 1991 and 2019 for both men and women.

In 1991 the marriage rate for men was 39/1000, this had declined to 20/1000 by 2019.

For women the figures were 34/1000 and 18/1000 respectively.

Graph showing total marriages and divorces in England and Wales 1991 to 2020.

During the lockdown of 2020 the marriage rate plummeted to only 6/1000 for both men and women.

I would expect the marriage rate to be similarly low in 2021, but then to increase in 2022 and maybe even 2023 with people having delayed getting married increasing the numbers. I think we will have to wait until 2024 for marriage rates to get back to normal and be able to compare the long term trend.

What is the average age of Marriage?

In 2019 the average age of marriage for men was 34.3 years for men and 32.3 years for women (2).

bar chart showing average age of marriage

Looking at the longer term trend the average age of marriage has increased by almost ten years since the the 1960s.

In 1967 the average age of marriage was 27 for men and 25 for women.

graph showing increasing age of marriage

The 2019 ONS data also shows us recent trends in the ages of same sex married couples getting married. Same-sex couples get married slightly older compared to opposite sex couples.

The Decline of Church Weddings

graph showing decline of church weddings

The above chart shows the drastic decrease in religious marriages, down to only 18.2% of all marriages by 2019. 82.8% of marriages in 2019 were civil ceremonies.

bar chart showing percent couples who cohabit before marrying

90% of couples cohabited before marrying in 2017, up from 70% in the late 1990s.

Limitations with Marriage Statistics

The ONS only publishes annual marriage statistics three years after the year marriages took place. This is because there can be a delay of up to 26 months from clergy and other official bodies in recording the marriages. The ONS estimates that one year on from marriages taking place, around 4% of them have still not been recorded. The three year delay is to make sure data recording is accurate.

Cohabitation Statistics

The proportion of cohabiting households in England and Wales has increased in the last decade.

18.4% of families were cohabiting in 2022. This is an increase from 15.7% of families in 2012.

Younger couples are much more likely to cohabit

According to UK Census, in 2021 (5)

  • 89% of couples aged 20-24 were cohabiting.
  • 45% of couples aged 30-34 were cohabiting.
  • 24% of couples aged 40-44 were cohabiting.
  • This declines to less than 10% for all couples aged 65 and over.

All aged groups were more likely to cohabit in 2021 compared to 2011, except for the very oldest age category of 85s and over.

Divorce Statistics

Since the 1960s there has been a long term increase in the divorce rate.

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 in decline. There are currently just under 90 000 divorces per year in England and Wales.

The Divorce Rate

graph showing long term trend in divorce rate UK

The Divorce Rate was extremely low in the late 1950s, at only 2.5 per 100 000 married couples (3)

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

The divorce rate has fallen since 2004

The divorce rate has fallen overall since 2004, but increased in recent years.

From 2004 to 2018 the UK divorce rate fell from 13 per 1000 marriages to just above 7 per 1000 marriages, the low point since before the 1969 Divorce Act.

The divorce rate has increased slightly since 2018, but only slightly and is currently at 9 divorces per 1000 in 2022.

The total number of divorces in 2021 was 113, 505.

What percent of marriages end in divorce?

The percentage of marriages which end in divorce depends on the year in which the marriage took place.

  • For those married in 1965, 28.7% of marriages had ended in divorce after 35 years.
  • For those married in 1975, 37.6% of marriages had ended in divorce after 35 years.
  • For those married in 1985 43.4% of marriages had ended in divorce after 35 years.
  • For those married in 1995 41.7% of marriages had ended in divorce after 25 years, and the divorce rate looks set to be higher by 35 years.
  • Those married in 2005 and 2015 have lower divorce rates for younger marriages, so are set to have divorce rates after 35 years somewhere between 36% and 42%.

For those who got married in 2005, 20.7% had got divorced after 10 years and 29.2% after 15 years.

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 was 12.3 years.

For same sex couples the median length of marriage is much shorter. It is 5.9 years for male couples and 5.3 years for female couples.

Opposite and Same-Sex Divorces

There were 111. 934 opposite-sex resources in 2021, 63% of which were petitioned by females and 37% petitioned by men.

There were 1571 same-sex divorces, of which 67% were petitioned by female couples. The number of same-sex divorces has increased every year since they first became possible in 2015, following the introduction of same-sex marriage shortly before.

Limitations with divorce statistics

Divorce statistics only show marriage break ups which are final. They don’t show married couples who are separated.

There are no formal official break up statistics for cohabiting couples. Hence it’s difficult to compare break up rates for married and cohabiting couples.

It is difficult to compare the rates of divorce between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Same sex marriage has only been around for less than a decade, and most divorces happen after several years of marriage. We will have to wait a few more years at least to be able to make valid comparisons.

Careful with comparisons! The Divorce Rate shows a slightly different trend to the ‘number of divorces’. The former is relative to the number of married couples!

Main sources used to write this post

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

(2) ONS: Marriages in England and Wales 2019.

(3) ONS: Divorces in England and wales 2021.

(4) ONS: Families and Households in the UK 2022.

(5) People’s living arrangements in England and Wales: Census 2021.

Other Sources

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.


This post is relevant 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.

Why is there are a long term increase in divorce?

The 1969 Divorce Act, more women in paid work and the decline of tradition and more individual freedom can help explain the long term increase in divorce.

There has been a long term increase in divorce in England and Wales since the 1950s, despite a more recent decline.

The Divorce rate was 2.5 per 1000 marriages in the 1950s, gradually increased to 4 per thousand through the 1960s and then rapidly increased to 10 per thousand by the mid 1970s.

The Divorce rate then carried on rising steadily to reach a peak of 14 per thousand by the mid 1990s, and then started to decline slowly to its current level of 7.5 divorces per thousand marriages.

This post looks at the reasons for the long term increase from the 1960s to the 1990s especially. NB despite the recent decline we still have a divorce rate today that is three times greater than it was in the 1960s, so there has still been a long term increase in the divorce rate overall.

Click here for a more in-depth look at trends in both marriage and divorce.

graph showing the trend in the divorce rate in England and Wales 1950 to 2019.

Why has there been a long-term increase in divorce?

There are four main factors which can explain the long term increase in divorce since the 1960s:

  • Social policy changes, mainly the Divorce Act of 1969.
  • Economic factors such as the rising cost of living.
  • Changing gender roles such as more women going in paid-work
  • Postmodernsisation which has meant the decline of religion and more freedom of choice.

This post examines these factors and others.

mind map showing reasons for the long term increase in divorce since the 1960s.

Social Policy Changes

The Divorce Act of 1969 explains the rapid increase in divorce during the early 1970s.

Prior to the Divorce Act it had been difficult to get a divorce because one person had to be at fault and accept blame for the marriage breaking down, through for example having had an affair.

The 1969 the Divorce Act extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’, meaning that two people could simply agree that the marriage wasn’t working for them because they had just fallen out of love and that it was no one persons fault.

The Act was passed by parliament in 1969 and came law in 1971. Married couples could get divorced after two years if both agreed and after five years if only one person wanted a divorce.

However, this cannot explain all the increase because the divorce rate was rising before the act, and continued to rise for many years after its immediate impact in the very early 1970s.

It seems fair to say there were deeper, underlying social factors which created the conditions for higher divorce and the policy change reflected these changes.

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.

A negative evaluation is that there isn’t a perfect correlation between increasing costs of living and the divorce rate: the divorce rate has been going down since 2010 when costs of living have been increasing.

Feminism/ changing gender roles

The changing position of women in society. Is crucial to understanding the increase in divorce rates.

The proportion of women staying on in higher education and entering paid work, especially professional occupations, steadily increased during the 1970s and especially the 1980s and early 1990s.

The proportion of women in some kind of paid work is now 70%, whereas in the 1950s it was less than 50%.

This means the ‘normal’ type of household is a dual-earner household in which both men and women are doing paid-work, which means men and women are on a more equal footing in their domestic relationship with women no longer being financially dependent on a male breadwinner.

Financial independence makes getting a divorce easier, and 70% of divorces are filed by women so this certainly explains some of the increase.

It also means that women spend longer building their careers before they have children, and so there are more childless married couples in their mid to late 30s, which makes getting a divorce much easier.

Anthony Giddens argues that two things lie behind the above changes to gender roles:

  • the impact of the Feminist movement, which has campaigned for equality of opportunity for women in society.
  • advances in contraception which allow women to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

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 Giddens 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.


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

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.

If divorce occurs within a family, the child will go with the mother in 90% of cases 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.

Signposting and related posts

This is one of the main topics within the families and households module commonly taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

For the next related post on explaining the recent decrease in the divorce rate.


Emma Watson recently coined the term ‘self-partnering’ to demonstrate her happiness with being single, which is in an increasing trend in the UK

There are 16.7 million people in the UK who are single and never married, and the number is increasing, with almost 370 000 more single people in the UK in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Unsurprisingly, you’re more likely to be single and never married when you’re younger compared to when you’re older, but at Emma Watson’s age almost half of people are single. However this has declined to only 25% of the population for people in their mid 40s.

NB – being single and not married doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely or celibate: many of these people will be dating, maybe in the early stages of a relationship, maybe in a more serious relationship and just not living together, so this just their formal status, rather than their actual relationship situation.

It would be interesting to get some stats on how many of these people are actually ‘single’ in the sense of not being in any kind of romantic relationship!

Relevance of this to A-level sociology

This is just a quick update to highlight the continued trend away from marriage and towards singledom. This is relevant to the ‘marriage and divorce’ topics and the ‘decline in the family’ debate within families and households.

If you’re interested in understanding why there are more single people, this post is a good starting point, on the increase in single person households, a closely related topic!

You can also use the ‘definition’ of single by the ONS to illustrate some of the limitations of official statistics – in that it isn’t the same as how most of us would use the word ‘single’ when we talk about relationships.

Applying Sociological Perspectives to the Decline of Marriage – Revision Notes

Summary revision notes (in diagram form) on sociological perspectives applied to the decline of marriage in society, written to help students revise for the families and households section of the AQA’s A-level sociology paper 2: topics in sociology.

You will probably need to click to enlarge/ save the picture below!

sociological perspectives decline marriage.png

Other sources you might find useful:

How many people are single?

An exploration of some of the problems of official statistics on ‘single people’

According to the Office for National Statistics, for the population in England Wales aged 16 and over, as of 2015

  • there are 16 million people aged 16 or over who are ‘single and have never cohabited or married’, equivalent to 34.5% of the adult population.
  • there are 19.8 million people ‘not living as a couple’, equivalent to 39% of the adult population.

The problem with these statistics is that they do not actually tell us how many ‘single’ people there are in England and Wales (let alone the United Kingdom) – at least not if we take the commonly accepted definition of a single person as ‘someone who is unmarried or not involved in a stable sexual relationship’. 

Below I explore why I think there are way less single people in the country than these official statistics suggest…

Single people never cohabited or married 

There are 16 million people who are ‘single and never cohabited or married’, equivalent to 34.5% of the population aged over 16 in England and Wales, at least according to Office for National Statistics, 2015 data.

Single and Married UK
Single people UK

However, while it is interesting to know how many people are ‘single, and have never married or cohabited’, this isn’t the same as the number of people who are actually single, for the following reasons:

  • Firstly, and probably most obviously, this system of categorization does not tell us the proportion of divorced or widowed people who not married but are in relationships, and thus not single. (Some of these will be cohabiting as if married of course, so in ‘highly committed relationships!)
  • Secondly, it doesn’t tell us how many people who are ‘single and never cohabited or married’ are in committed relationships, and hence not actually single.
  • Thirdly, it doesn’t tell us how many ‘married’ people are in empty shell marriages, and thus single in a sense.

NB – the above data came from the Labour Force Survey, which gleans its information about relationship status from a series of interview questions – questions which will in no way tell us how many actual single people there are in the U.K. – this particular question is only really only useful for telling us the number of married people or in a formal civil partnership and cannot tell us very much about the relationship status of the non-married/ civil partnership people.

Families UK

In fairness to LFS, it does go on to ask whether people are ‘cohabiting’, the results for which are shown below…

People ‘not living as a couple’

A second possible way of measuring the number of single people in the country, again taken from ONS Labour Force Survey data,  is to look at ‘living arrangements’ – and here we find that approximately 39% of the population are not living as a couple, while 61% are living as a couple.

Single People UK 2015
how many single people UK

I’d say this is a more valid way of measuring the number of single people in the country because it includes a clear indication that 61% of the population are either married or cohabiting, rather than just the number of people who are ‘married’ like in the first data set. However, it still does not tell us how many single people there are in the country, because some proportion of people not living as a couple will still be in committed relationships, but the data does not tell us this!

We are thus forced to look elsewhere to find out how many actual single people there are in the country….

Other sources of data about ‘single people’

I guess I’ve got to at least mention Facebook….. According to ‘statistics brain‘, 37% of people report their relationship status as single on Facebook.

Facebook relationships

However, this data has validity problems because:

  • I don’t have access to the methodology used, no details are provided.
  • This probably isn’t from the UK.
  • According to this New Statesman article, 40% of 20 somethings are reluctant to report themselves as ‘in a relationship’ on Facebook unless it is an engagement.

This 2017 Statista survey reports that around 27% of the UK population aged 40 to 70 reported that they were single, not currently in a relationship.

single people UK 2017

While I’m inclined to intuit that this is a valid figure, unfortunately I’m not in a position to objectively validate the findings because I ain’t prepared to pay the subscription fee to gain the access required to get the information on sampling techniques (if they even exist in any meaningful sense because this was an online survey!)

Having said that, the above data is broadly backed up by this 2014 YouGov Poll  which reports that 30% of the UK population are single (although the analysis doesn’t go into any detail about this aspect of the poll, limiting itself to how people who are in relationships feel about each other).

Personally I think this 30% figure sounds about right, given that the numbers of single people in their 20s and 30s will probably be higher than those in the their 40s-70s, you’d expect the later percentage to be slightly higher than the Statista results, so it triangulates nicely.

So…. how many people are single in the UK? About 30%. 

Signposting and Related Posts

This topic is usually taught as part of the families and households module in the first year of A-level Sociology, and is part of the ‘family-diversity’ subtopic.

It may seem odd studying single people in a module on the family, but the simply fact is that declining marriage and increasing divorce mean that more people stay single for more of their lives than ever before!

Further Reading…..

This Enduring Love Study might be of interest.

Postscript – Fantasy reporting on the geographic distribution of single people 

Heads up on click-bait lists like this from The Independent which show you the ‘cities with the most single people in’ – here are the results:

The percentages above are for people who are ‘single and never married’, the problem is that most of these are university towns…. where lots of young people live, most of whom will move on to another city once they’ve graduated, and to my mind to get a realistic picture of how ‘committed to single life’ a city’s population is, you’d need to control for age, and how long they intend to stay in that city. It’s sort or ironic, somehow, that geographical instability (most students only intend to reside in their university town temporarily) skews the figures on how many people are not in a stable relationship (i.e. single).

Then of course, as I mentioned above, many of these people will actually be in committed relationships.

Changes to Marriage and Divorce – Infographic

I knocked up this brief ‘infographic’ in Skitch on the iPad – explaining the decline of marriage and the increase in divorce.

You might also like the more detailed posts on this topic (which should be linked below)

Families Topic 2 – Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation – Short Answer Questions


Identify two trends (changes) in the pattern of marriage despite the fact that the overall number of marriages have declined (4)

  • Fewer people are marrying

  • There are more remarriages

  • People are marrying later

  • Couples are less likely to marry in church

Suggest three social changes which explain why there has been a decline in the marriage rate (6)

  • There is less pressure to marry – people believe that the relationship is more important than legal status

  • Secularisation

  • Declining shame attached to cohabitation and remaining single and having children outside of marriage

  • Changing position of women – with better job prospects women are no longer financially dependent on men and are thus able to choose not to marry

  • Increasing fear of divorce (linked to risk society/ risk consciousness/ late-modernism)

Suggest three reasons for the overall rise in the divorce rate since 1969 (6)

  • Changes in the divorce law – equalising the grounds of divorce between the sexes; widening the grounds for divorce, making divorce cheaper (Social Policy)

  • Declining stigma and changing attitudes – divorce is becoming more socially acceptable (Postmodernism)

  • Secularisation – the traditional opposition of churches carries less weight (Postmodernism)

  • Individualisation leads to rising expectations of marriage – When the marriage doesn’t live up to expectations, divorce is more likely (Late-Modernism)

  • The changing position of women women are now no longer dependent on men financially so don’t need to stay married for economic reasons (Feminism)

Suggest two reasons for the recent decrease in divorce rates (4)

  • Fewer people are getting married, so there are fewer people who can divorce

  • Because people are getting married later, they are more likely to stay together

  • People can’t afford to get a divorce and set up two new homes

  • Increasing immigration – Immigrants are more likely to hold traditional values and thus less likely to get divroced

Suggest two alternatives to Divorce (4)

  • Desertion

  • Legal separation

  • Empty shell marriages

Identify two consequences of an increasing divorce rate (4)

  • Increase in single parent households after divorce

  • Increase in single person households after divorce

  • Potenital harm to children

  • Increase in reconstituted families

Explaining the Changing Patterns of Marriage Mind Map

This is one way of teaching/ revising this sub-topic within the marriage and divorce topic of the Families and Households Module. You might need to click on it to enlarge it!

Explaining the changing patterns of Marriage in the UK

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

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

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.

Please click here to return to the homepage –


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

Sociological Perspectives on Marriage and Divorce

Feminism, The New Right. Post and Late Modernism.

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.
mind map summarising sociological perspectives on marriage and divorce.

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.

Late modernism

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.

Explaining the changing patterns of marriage.

Essay Plan – Examine the Reasons for the Long Term Increase in the Divorce Rate.

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