Examine the reasons for the changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation in the last 40 years or so

6 June 2016

In the last 40 years, Society in Britain has experienced many changes that have affected the family. There have been changes in attitudes to and expectations of family life, as well as official changes such as government laws. These changes have been induced by the rise of feminism; they have increased awareness of women’s rights and freedoms. Another change that has affected family is postmodernism, which has promoted freedom, choice and diversity. Secularisation has also affected the family, which has taken away stigmas attached to aspects of family life. The changes resulting have affected marriage rates, which are decreasing, and more people are now marrying later in life and more than once. More people are choosing to cohabit, either before or instead of marrying, and this is becoming increasingly common in young couples.

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Divorce rates have also increased in the last 40 years, following the changes in the law and attitudes. As society’s view of a ‘conventional family’ has changed over the last 40 years, the variety of acceptable norms has increased drastically. In the past, an unmarried woman or spinster would be looked down on in society ,as it was a norm that a woman should be married with children. If they didn’t they would be judged as there was a problem with them so that they couldn’t have kids or a husband. The average age for a women first getting married in 1961 was 23.1 this has risen to 30 by June 2009.

This shows that women are now waiting longer for their first marriage. This is down to many different reasons. Single women aren’t looked down on by the majority of people today, they are viewed as strong, independent women. This means that there is next to no pressure for women to get married quickly. This has resulted in the rise in cohabitation. Marriage is no longer seen as the definition of a proper relationship by society. 40 years ago, living together outside of marriage was a rarity; however cohabitation can now be seen as a socially acceptable alternative to marriage. This is partly due to the changing attitudes to sexual relationships mean that sex is no longer seen as only legitimate within marriage, this has also resulted in far fewer members of my generation viewing cohabitation as morally wrong. More and more people are also seeing that the legal papers of marriage are just legal papers it doesn’t add to the relationship.

For people in today’s society a happy relationship is much more important than the papers that come with getting married, people see that a couple that cohabit and are happy have as much of a valid relationship than those who are married. Divorce rates have also increased as a result of the change in attitudes. In the past there was a stigma attached to getting divorced, however It is now much more acceptable and ‘normal’ for divorce to happen, 40% of marriages end in divorce. The attitude to marriage has changed from it being a lifelong contract to a serious relationship, and it is far more acceptable for a relationship to end than a contract to be broken, so divorce becomes more acceptable, and more people feel able to end a relationship in which they are not happy.

When another wave of Feminism started in the 60’s, their views have been impacting society’s values and the pattern of family life. Feminists believe in the independence of women, both financially and socially, and that marriage is oppressive to females because it is dominated by males. They also reject the idea that women should become the housewife giving up her career to bear children. They welcome the rise in cohabitation. They do agree with the postmodernists in that family life should be down to choice and is diverse. They say that women should have the freedom to choose whether they marry, cohabit or divorce or whether they raise children alone or in a relationship all dependent on their choice.

They have also encouraged women to focus on a career rather than starting a family and getting married, thus the marriage rate has decreased. Feminist have also given positive responses to the government that have made laws making divorce easier. Before these laws it was ridiculously difficult for women to get a divorce. These laws give women more freedom for women to abusive and oppressive marriages. Judith Stacey has argued how that greater choice has benefitted women because it enables them to be free from patriarchal oppression and shape their family to their needs. Marxist-Feminists have gone as far as linking gender inequality to class inequality, they would say that the falling rates in marriage and raising rates of divorce are showing that society is becoming less controlled by the capitalist men.

Feminist say that as women take on a more equal role in society as they are able to support themselves financially and can afford to be free from male oppression. Laws over the When laws relating to marriage and divorce have changed in the last 30 years, they have both helped to shape and influence social attitudes, and also reflected the changes in attitudes that have taken place. The Civil Partnerships Act in 2004 enabled people of the same sex to enter in to a civil partnership, or gay marriage. This has meant that the concept of marriage has been widened beyond previous definition, and provides another option for people who may otherwise have felt forced in to a heterosexual marriage in order to conform to societies expectations. This could have an impact on patterns of heterosexual marriage because people no longer feel they need to fit a certain mould, because the law has changed to be more inclusive. Legislation has also made divorce a lot easier than before and more of an option for many people. In 1984, the law said that rather than being married for 3 years before a couple were allowed to divorce, the time was reduced to one year.

The Family Law Act in 1996 said that there did not have to be any fault involved with divorce for it to be done quickly and promoting mediation to make the process easier. This turned the idea of divorce from being that of a failed marriage, and the result of someone’s mistakes or failures, to be being just another part of normal life, an acceptable next step after being married for a while. The decline in religious people in Britain has also been a factor in the patterns of cohabitation and divorce. As the country becomes more and more secular, values that are traditionally associated with religion are declining gradually.

Younger generations no longer viewing sex outside of marriage as sinful is just one of these religious traditions that are declining, it is also less likely to be taken into consideration for couples choosing to cohabit instead of marrying. The church has always been supportive of marriage it’s a tradition of religion, but as the decline in the churches influence over society’s values, marriage could be seen as declining in value too. Most religions still uphold the importance of marriage in a person’s life so they therefore discredit divorce, so in the past couples would have tried at all accounts to stay together and make it work.

The divorce rates have increased because people are less likely to be considering religious views when making their decisions. In the UK there has been a vast increase over the last 40 years in the variety of different faith influences in the UK. Due to society becoming more multicultural, there has been an increase in marriages where the partners have different faiths, or one person has no faith. This can lead to difficulties in the Childs upbringing. Another difficulty could be the conflict caused by two families of different faiths. Divorce is more likely in inter-faith marriages than those of the same faith; this has also helped in the increase of the divorce rate. . Postmodernism can also help to explain trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation in the last 40 years. Postmodernist ideas say that choice for every individual is the most important thing, and puts personal freedom and satisfaction above all else. Postmodernists say that unlike frogs or butterflies we us people don’t go through a fixed life cycle, instead we follow a life course where at many points we go either one way or another.

This means that there is no right or ideal way to have a relationship or raise a family, so people are free to live however be most convenient for them, which may include cohabitation rather than marriage. Postmodernist views also say that our identity is no longer defined by our family background, and instead centres on material possessions, which means families are less important to who we are. This could mean that people are less inclined to see marriage as a vital part of adulthood and so choose cohabitation because it is more flexible, or to remain single. With an emphasis on self-fulfilment means that people will become less focused on commitment to anything outside of themselves, from party politics to relationships, this has also made marriage rates suffered. by putting priority on yourself means that if they aren’t fulfilled by their partner, whether this is their wife/husband or boyfriend/girlfriend. They can leave to find a new one.

This would also explain the higher divorce rate. Beck has argued that we now live in a ‘risk society’ where tradition has less influence and people have more choice. He says that as a result of this we make choices by calculating the risk and reward factors involved. He also says how it contrasts from earlier years where both partners had fixed roles and had less choice for example, people were expected to marry. Once married men were expected to be the breadwinner and disciplinarian and make the important financial decisions, whilst women took care of children and the house. British society’s understanding of the form and function of a family has been changing over the last 30 years, and this has been shown in the rates of marriage falling, divorce and remarriage increasing, and cohabitation becoming a more popular lifestyle choice.

Society’s values have been affected by a greater emphasis on individualism and personal fulfilment, as opposed to the traditional values of the Church, which have had more of a role in defining the family in the past. There has been an increase in awareness of equality issues too, particularly with the rise of feminism and gay rights, which have lead to changes in the law such as the Civil Partnerships Act, and legislation to increase ease of divorce. Various sociological theories have attempted to explain these changes, particularly postmodernism, but the fact that 95.1% of British women still choose to marry before the age of 49 shows that while our views on marriage and family life becoming more flexible, they still remain an important part of our society. In my opinion the reason for the increase in marriage is because Britain has become a throwaway society, we can dispose of anything we choose including marriage, a marriage can end up in divorce after six weeks.

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