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Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation

An Overview of Families and Households Topic Two – Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation, covering key sub-topics, key concepts and some exam style questions (short answer and essay questions).

You need to be able to identify key trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation and outline the social factors which explain why the trends are happening (ideally using sociological perspectives), and analyse the importance of each factor. You also need to be able to outline different perspectives views on the consequences of the changing patterns of each of the above.

Sub topics

2.1: Explaining the trends in marriage

2.2: Explaining the trends in divorce

2.3: Perspectives on the consequences of declining marriage and increasing divorce

2.4: Examining how marriage, divorce and cohabitation vary by social class, ethnicity, sexuality and across generations

Key concepts, research studies and case studies you should be able to apply

  • Civil Partnerships
  • Divorce
  • Legal separation
  • Empty shell marriage
  • Secularisation
  • Cohabitation
  • The pure relationship (Anthony Giddens)
  • The negotiated family (Ulrich Beck)
  • Consumer culture
  • Postmodernisation
  • Gender roles (changing)
  • Genderquake
  • Individualisation
  • Monogamy
  • Serial Monogamy

Possible exam style short answer questions

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

Using one example briefly explain one reason for the recent decrease in divorce rates (4)

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

Outline and explain two consequences of an increasing divorce rate (10) hint – use the perspectives.

Define the following terms – the matrifocal family, polygamy, polygyny and polyandry (4*2 marks for each term).

Possible Essay Questions – You should plan these!

Assess sociological explanations for the changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation over the last 40 years or so (20)

Assess sociological explanations for changes in the divorce rate since 1969 (20)

Assess different perspectives on declining marriage, increasing divorce and increasing co-habitation (20)

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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

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Sociological Perspectives on Declining Marriage and Increasing Divorce on Society

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?

Sociological Perspective on Declining Marriage and Increasing Divorce

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.

Feminism

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.

Postmodernism

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.

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, 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.

Related Posts 

Explaining the changing patterns of marriage 

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

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Essay Plan: Assess the reasons for the long term increase in the divorce rate (20)

Assess the reasons for the long term increase in the divorce rate (20)

This essay looks at social policies such as the 1969 divorce act, changes to gender roles, economic factors, secularisation and postmodernisation.  

Introduction – The divorce rate has generally increased since the 1960s. The number almost trebled in the years following the 1969 divorce act and from the mid-1970s, the divorce rate has risen steadily, although it has been declining since 2005.

Social Policy changes are the first factor that explains rapidly increasing divorce in the early 1970s – the 1969 the Divorce Act extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’, making divorce possible even if only one partner wanted a divorce. However, this cannot explain all of the increase, since the divorce rate was rising before the act, and continued to rise for many years afterwards.

Economic Factors – We also need to look at 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.

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 – because if divorce occurs within a family, in 9/10 cases, the child will go with the mother – 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, a point of view which is not shared by the next three perspectives…

Feminism/ changing gender roles. Many commentators argue that the changing position of women in society. Is crucial to understanding the increase in divorce rates.

Women today are much more likely to be in employment today and this means they are less financially dependent on their husbands and thus freer to end an unsatisfactory marriage. The proportion of women in some kind of paid work is now 70%, whereas in the 1950s it was less than 50%

Giddens himself argues that two trends are the most important – the impact of the Feminist movement, which arguably lies behind all of the above changes, and also the advances in contraception – which allows women to avoid unwanted pregnancies – and women in marriages without children will be freer to leave those marriages. 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.

A further set of reasons are those associated with Postmodernism. 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. However, one exception to this might that among some Muslim communities the concept of Izaat still prevents people from getting divorced.

Late Modern Sociologists argue against Postmodernists – getting a divorce is not simply a matter of individual choice, rather the increasing divorce rate is because of the changing nature of the typical relationship.

Anthony Giddens, for example argues that the typical type of relationship is the ‘pure relationship’… it exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than for tradition or for the sake of the children. In short, we have increased expectations of marriage, and if it doesn’t work for us, then we get a divorce.

Ulrich Beck points out that divorce has increased because the typical late-modern family is characterised by more gender equality and negotiation – pleasing both partners takes a lot of time and effort, which is simply not sustainable when both partners are in paid work, which in turn explains the high levels of divorce.

By way of a conclusion, there are many different historical trends that go into explaining the increase in divorce rates – it is important to remember that social structural forces are at work – such as changes in the law, the impact of Feminism and the changing role of women, which have had the effect of making our society more gender equal and providing people with greater choice, all of which work together to explain the increasing rate of divorce.

As a final word, it is also worth noting that the divorce rate is now decreasing – which could be due to the fact that the age at which people get married is increasing – people get married after a lengthy period of co-habitation – and so are more likely to marry the right person for the right reasons!

Related Posts 

The effects of declining marriage and increasing divorce on society

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For more essays, please see my main post on exam advice, short answer questions and essays.