This post explores the similarities and differences in marriage and civil partnership between same sex and opposite sex couples in England and Wales. It has been written to fit in with the A-level Sociology families and households specification.
The introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act in 2005 saw a huge number of male and female same sex couples becoming civil partners, with the yearly number of civil partnerships stabilising at just over 6000 a year in the late 2000s.
The introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014 saw a further drop, so that now there are just under 1000 civil partnerships a year, with male couples slightly more likely to form them than female couples.
It seems that marriage is taking over from civil partnerships.
The ONS reported in 2017 that ‘A total of 4,850 marriages were formed between same sex couples in 2014. Of these, 44% (2,129) were between male couples and 56% (2,721) were between female couples.’
The median duration of marriage for same-sex couples who divorced in 2018 was 3.9 years for men and 3.5 years for women. (ONS, Divorces in England and Wales 2018). 80% of divorces are to female couples!
NB there is currently very little data to go on for same sex divorces, as there are so few marriages!
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are four main factors which can explain for the long term increase in divorce:
Social policy changes
Changing gender roles
This post examines these factors and others.
Social Policy Changes
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 Gidden’s 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.
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.
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.
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!
A model answer for a 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ question on the AQA’s A level sociology paper 2 (families and households)
A model answer to a possible 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ question, written for the A-level sociology AQA A-level paper 7192/2: topics within sociology: families and households section).
Outline and explain two social changes which may explain the decline of marriage in recent decades (10)
The first social factor is in more depth than the second.
Economic changes such as the increasing cost of housing and the increasing cost of weddings may explain the decline of marriage:
Young adults stay living with their parents longer to save up for a mortgage, often into their 30s. Men especially might feel embarrassed to marry if they still live with their parents, because it’s not very ‘masculine’. This also reflects the importance changing gender roles: now women are taking on the ‘breadwinner role’, there’s no obvious need to marry a man. This applies especially to low income earning, working class men.
Furthermore, it’s often a choice between ‘marriage’ or ‘house deposit’: most people just co-habit because they can’t afford to get married. People would rather by a house because ‘material security’ is more important than the ‘security of marriage’. People also fail to save for weddings because of the pressure to consume in postmodern society. However, this only applies to those who want a big ‘traditional’ wedding, which costs £15K.
The significance of economic factors criticise the postmodernist view that marriage declining is simply a matter of ‘free-choice’.
A Second reason for the decline of marriage is secularisation, or the decline of religion in society.
Christianity, for example emphasises that marriage is a sacred union for life before God, and that sex should only take place within marriage. With the decline of religion, social values have shifted so that it is now acceptable to have sex before marriage, and with more than one partner, meaning that dating, serial monogamy and cohabitation have all replaced marriage to a large extent.
The decline of religion also reflects the fact that marriage today is not about ‘pleasing society’, it is simply about pleasing the two individuals within the relationship, the ‘pure relationship’ is now the norm, and people no longer feel like they need God’s approval of their relationshp, so there is less social pressure to get married.
However, this trend does vary by ethnicity, and Muslims, Hindus and Jews within Britain are all much more likely to get married in a religious ceremony.
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.
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
Empty shell marriage
The pure relationship (Anthony Giddens)
The negotiated family (Ulrich Beck)
Gender roles (changing)
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)
How does family life vary by ethnicity in the UK today?
This brief update explores the extent to which family life and attitudes to family-life vary across some of the different ethnic groups in the UK. It looks at such things as marriage, divorce, birth rates, household types, equality and household structure.
Data from the latest (2011) census shows that 86% of the UK population are classified as ‘white’, 7.5% as ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian-British’, 3.3% as’ Black’, 2.2% as ‘Mixed’ and 1% as ‘other’.
(NB – This represents a signficant increase in ethnic minorities compared to the 2001 census. In 2011, 14% of the population were non-white, compared to 9% in 2001.)
A brief history of South-Asian Family Life in the UK
Ballard (1982) noted that most South-Asian families had a much broader network of familial-relations than a typical white-British family and one individual household might be only one small part of a complex global network of kin-relations.
Ballard argued that in order to understand South-Asian family life in the UK in the 1980s, you had to look at the ideal model of family life in Asia which is Patriarchal, being based on tight control of women, collectivist (the group is more important than the individual) and obsessed with mainting family honour (primarily through not getting divorced/ committing adultury or having children outside of wedlock) because maintaining honour was crucial to your being able to do business in the wider community.
Ballard also stressed the importance of Honour and its Patriarchal nature….. The complexity of the question of the asymmetry of the sexes is nowhere better illustrated than in the concepts of honour, izzat and shame, sharm. In its narrower sense izzat is a matter of male pride. Honourable men are expected to present an image of fearlessness and independence to the outside world, and at the same time to keep close control over the female members of their families. For a woman to challenge her husband’s or her father’s authority in public shamefully punctures his honour. To sustain male izzat wives, sisters and daughters must be seen to behave with seemly modesty, secluding themselves from the world of men.
One of the key questions A-level sociology students should ask themselves is the extent to which the above research is true today, or the extent to which things have changed!
Household type by Ethnicity, UK Census 2011
According to the UK 2011 Census, we had the following variations by ethnicity:
Some of the most obvious differences of ethnic minority households (compared to white) households include:
Asian households are three times less likely to be cohabiting, and have higher rates of marriage
Asian households have half the rate of Lone Person households compared to white households.
Black and mixed households have twice the rate of lone parent households.
Black, Asian and mixed households have incredibly low levels of pensioner couple households compared to White households, and much higher rates of ‘other households’ (could be ‘multigenerational?)
A previous UK National Statistics report showed that the highest proportions of married couples under pension age, with or without children, are in Asian households. Over half of Bangladeshi (54%), Indian (53%) and Pakistani (51%) households contained a married couple, compared with 37% of those headed by a White British person. Demonstrating the importance of marriage for the Brit-Asian communities.
Divorce today is now much more common among Asian couples
Divorce has traditionally been seen as something shameful in Asian culture, with children under pressure to stay in loveless marriages in order to uphold the family’s honour and prevent shame falling on the family.
However, for today’s third and fourth generation Asians, things are much different.. According to this article there is a soaring British Asian divorce rate now that young Asian men and especially women are better educated and increasingly going into professional careers.
Forced Marriages are more common among Asian Families
There is also a dark-side to Asian family life, and that comes in the number of Forced Marriages associated with Asian communities.
In 2018 the British authorities dealt with 1500 cases of Forced Marriage, with there being over 1000 cases a year for most of the last decade.
Nearly half of all cases involve victims being taken to or originating from Pakistan, with Bangladesh being the second most involved country.
Only 7% of Forced Marriages take place entirely in the UK, so there’s an interesting link to (negative) Globalisation and family life here.
The number of interracial relationships is increasing
The fact that interracial relationships are increasing might make it more difficult to make generalisations between ethnic groups in the future…..
Overall almost one in 10 people living in Britain is married to or living with someone from outside their own ethnic group, the analysis from the Office for National Statistics shows.
But the overall figure conceals wide variations. Only one in 25 white people have settled down with someone from outside their own racial background. By contrast 85 per cent of people from mixed-race families have themselves set up home with someone from another group.
Age is the crucial factor with those in their 20s and 30s more than twice as likely to be living with someone from another background as those over 65, reflecting a less rigid approach to identity over time.
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