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.
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.
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 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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
An essay plan that should be sufficient to get you into the top mark band
Examine some of the reasons for changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation (24)
There have been many changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation in the last 40 years. This is due a number of different factors including secularisation and changing attitudes towards the value of marriage and larger acceptance of cohabitation. Divorce rates have also influenced patterns of marriages and remarriages – likewise has women’s liberation and changing attitudes in women’s position.
Secularisation – or the decreased value of religion in society has had a large impact on marriage roles and cohabitation. Marriage is now viewed as a contract of love, friendship and trust – often resulting in divorce if these fail to continue throughout the marriage (only ½ of marriages last for ten years). This is juxtaposed to the religious nature of marriage in the past – a binding contract – ‘til death do us part’. Cohabitation has also become less frowned upon. However, this trend seems to be generational. 80% of 16-24 year olds said it was acceptable to cohabit in 2007, compared to only 44% of the 56-64 year olds.
Thus these changes in societal values have resulted in a decrease of marriage – due to declining of value and the increasing accessibility of divorce whilst roles of cohabitation are still on a steady incline.
The divorce act of 1969 made irretrievable breakdown the sole basis for attaining divorce. This caused a large influx of divorce, peaking in 1999. The seemingly stable idea of marriage now began to contract for many people. If their partner was not suitable, divorce was now available, which is another factor for the rise in cohabitation and the decrease in marriage.
Cohabitation is now seen as an option instead of marriage supporting more freedom and flexibility. Living together apart is one example of a serious relationship type where people do not live together. However, 80% of cohabitating partners intend to marry.
A decrease in secularisation has brought about an acceptance of cohabitation of same sex couples. The 2004 civil partnership act also allowed homosexual couples to marry – some sociologists argue that cohabitation – particularly a lesbian couple – is a way of resisting gender scripts and norms
This is relative to women’s liberation – women now resist the idea of marriage due to financial independent and stability. Also, women are increasingly resisting the idea of segregated conjugal roles for a more symmetrical relationship. For many women, cohabitation offers these opportunities. Availability of contraception has lessened the obligation of having to conceive children when in a long term relationship.
Feminists argue this is a movement of resistance towards the patriarchal institutions of marriage not the family as such.
Concluding, patterns of marriage and cohabitation have changed significantly due to divorce, women’s liberation and secularisation. Secularisation is perhaps the basis for the change due to social change in attitudes towards cohabitation and marriage. However, women’s liberation and divorce further instil this idea, offering more choice to the individual.