“Examine the reasons for changes in the patterns of marriage, divorce and cohabitation over the past 40 years.”

5 May 2016

The patterns of marriage, divorce and cohabitation over the past 40 years has varied quite significantly. In 1972, the highest ever number of couples (480,000) since the Second World War got married. Now, obviously there is a reason for this.

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According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this was due to the baby boom generation of the 1950s reaching marriageable age and these people choosing to marry at a younger age compared with previous generations.

However, after this period, the number of marriages in England and Wales then went into decline. Most recently, marriages reached an all-time low in 2005 when only 244,710 couples got married. Some people would say that it reached so low because people are rejecting marriage and are no longer bothered about it. But in fact, statistics reveal that many people are actually delaying marriage. It is said that most people will marry at some point in their lives, but people are deciding to marry later in life, most likely after a period of cohabitation.

A reason for this is probably because couples want to “Test the water” before they make any commitments. Evidence to support the “marrying later in life” view is that the average age for first-time bridges in 2003 was 29 years and for all grooms 31 years, compared with 22 for women and 24 for men in 1971. In particular women may want to delay marriage so they can advance their career prospects. As well as a decline in the total number of marriages, there is also a decline in marriage rates (the number of people marrying per 1000 of the population aged 16 and over). In 1994, the marriage rate was 11.4 but this had declined to 10.3 by 2004.

The male rate declined from 36.3 in 1994 to 27.8 in 2004 whilst the female rate declined from 30.6 to 24.6. Once again, even though there is a decline, British Social Attitude Surveys indicate that most people, whether single, divorced or cohabitating, still see marriage as a desirable life-goal, and therefore will most likely will get married at some point in the future, particularly if they are having children, because they believe that this is best done in the context of marriage.

Another change in the patterns of marriage is that two fifths of all marriages are remarriages, in which one or both partners have been divorced. These people are obviously committed to the institution of marriage despite their previous negative experience of it. The reason for this trend could possibly because their first marriages were empty-shell marriages.

This is where there is no love or intimacy between them, but the marriage persists for the sake of the children until they are old enough. They then might have wanted to start a new life, including a re-marriage. Despite the decrease in the overall number of people marrying, married couples are still the main type of partnership for men and women in the UK. In 2005, seven in ten families were headed by a married couple.

In terms of Divorce – the legal ending of a marriage, this has increased rapidly since 1969 due to a piece of legislation that granted divorce on the basis of “irretrievable breakdown” – the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. In addition, since 1984, couples have been able to petition for divorce after the first anniversary of their marriage.

This law made the Divorce rate shoot high because it generally made it easier and cheaper to end marriages. In addition, people were finally able to legally to end all connections, as previously when divorce was either too expensive or difficult to obtain, separation was very common, which was when a couple decided to live away from each other.

To go into more detail of the trend of increased divorces, in 1993, the number of divorces peaked at 180,000. By 2000, this figure had fallen to 154,000, although the years 2001 – 2004 have seen a gradual rise to 167,100. There are now nearly half as many divorces as marriages and, if present trends continue, about 40% of current marriages will end in divorce.

An acceptable reason for this increasing trend of divorce is that it is no longer associated with stigma and shame. Britain’s culture is based upon Christian religion, and Christians believe that marriage is for life (‘till death do us part’). However, over years, changes in attitudes and secularisation have emerged, and the view that divorce can lead to greater happiness for the individual is more acceptable.

A third reason which could explain the increasing divorce rates is down to women wanting to improve educational and career opportunities. In 1870, the Education Act passed by Gladstone’s government meant that every child between the ages of five and fifteen had the opportunity for elementary education.

Not only did this produce a large literate generation of people, but it also improved the girls reading and writing ability, which previously was much lower than boys. Now, women have their own stable careers with a good wage, and thus do not have to be unhappily married because they are financially dependent on their husband. Feminists note that women’s expectations of marriage have radically changed, compared with previous generations. In the 1990s, most divorce petitions were put forward by women.

This may support Thornes and Collard’s (1979) view that women expect far more from marriage than men and, in particular, that they value friendship and emotional gratification more than then do. If husbands fail to love up to these expectations, women may feel the need to look elsewhere. This would also support the fact that, on average, the number of divorce proceedings started by women is about 70%. Finally, functionalist sociologists argue that high divorce rates are evidence that marriage is increasingly valued and that people are demanding higher standards from their partners.

They believe that couples are no longer prepared to put up with unhappy, empty-shell marriages, as people want emotional and sexual compatibility and equality, as well as companionship. It is said that some are even willing to go through a number of partners to achieve these goals, and if they marry every time they meet a new partner, then obviously they are going to contribute a lot more to the rising divorce rates.

The final area of the diverse family is cohabitation. The basic trend of cohabitation is that it is on the increase and has been for the last decade. The proportion of non-married people cohabiting has risen sharply in the last 20 years from 11% of men and 13% of women in 1986 to 24% and 25% respectively. In 2007, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in the UK. In fact, around 2.2 million families are cohabiting couples with or without children.

This family type has grown by 65% since 1997, and really, the numbers are likely to be higher than this because the ONS data did not include same-sex couples living together. In addition, the ONS data suggested that a third of teenagers in 2007 were destined to cohabit rather than marry, compared with one in ten of their grandparents. As we gathered that the general trend is on the increase, it’s good to know the reasons why.

One of the first reasons, which I mentioned earlier on, is that people like to cohabit to “test the water.” During this period, they will assess whether they (the couple) are compatible with each other and whether they will be able to live with each other before making any sort of commitments. After all, cohabitation on average lasts for 5 years, which then 60% of cohabitees will then marry.

Another reason for the said trend is that there are a significant number of people who live together whilst waiting for a divorce. For example, in 2005, 23% of cohabiting men were separated from a pervious partner whilst 36% were divorced. So although a person may be married, they may have separated and moved into another house to live with a person they have met. They will then be counted as a cohabitee. A third reason for the increased rate of cohabitation could be because people are put off the cost of marriage.

According to Wedding Guide UK, the average cost of a traditional wedding in the UK is around £11,000. In addition to the price, some people are also put off because of the religious ceremony of marriage. This is because overtime we have become a more secular society. Both of these factors to some people will refrain them from marrying, because in their eyes they see it as long as they are with each other in a happy and loving relationship, they don’t need a ring or a piece of paper with their names on it.

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