Marriage Divorce Cohabitation

1 January 2017

Examine the reasons for the changes in the patterns of marriage, cohabitation and divorce in the last 30 years. In the last 30 years, the British society has experienced many changes affecting the family. There have been changes in attitudes to and expectations of family life, as well as official changes such as government legislation. Society has been affected by feminism, which has led to increased awareness of women’s rights and freedoms, as well as postmodernism and secularisation. The changes resulting have affected marriage rates, which are decreasing, and more people are now marrying later in life and more than once.

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More people are choosing to cohabit, either before or instead of marrying, and this is becoming increasingly common in young couples. Divorce rates have also increased in the last 30 years, following changes in legislation and attitudes. As society’s view of a ‘conventional family’ has changed over the last 30 years, the acceptable norms have widened. In the past, an unmarried woman would be looked down on, as it was expected that women would marry and invest their time in raising a family. If they didn’t, it could be presumed that could they couldn’t find a willing partner, or that there was something wrong with them.

Although 95. 1% of British women still marry before they are 49, it has become more acceptable to choose not to get married, and rather than being looked down on, single women are more likely to be viewed as strong, focussed, and independent. This means there is less pressure on couples to marry quickly, and so has also affected the rise in cohabitation. Society no longer views marriage as the only definition of a serious relationship, and this has given credibility to couples choosing to cohabit instead. 0 years ago, living together outside of marriage was rare, but cohabitation can now be seen as an acceptable alternative to marriage.

This is partly because changing attitudes to sexual relationships mean that sex is no longer seen as only legitimate within marriage, and far fewer members of younger generations consider cohabiting morally wrong. Many people now view the legal contract of marriage as far less important than the relationship, so the relationship of a cohabiting couple is regarded as just as valid as a married couple. Divorce rates have also increased as a result of changing social attitudes.

While in the past, there was a lot of stigma attached to divorce, it is now considered far more acceptable and ‘normal’. 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. Since the second wave of feminism started in the 1960s, feminist views have been increasingly impacting our society’s values, and the patterns of family life.

Feminists believe in the independence of women, both socially and financially, and view marriage as oppressive to women due to male domination within marriage. They reject the idea that women should find fulfilment in homemaking and childbearing, and so welcome the decline of marriage, and the increase in cohabitation. They would argue that women should have the freedom to choose whether to and when to marry, cohabit or divorce, raise children alone or with a partner, depending on their personal feelings.

This has impacted of society’s view of acceptable behaviour, and encouraged more women to focus on a career rather than marriage or a family, which has decreased the marriage rate. Feminist views encourage laws making divorce easier, because it means there is more freedom for women to leave violent, oppressive or abuse relationships. Marxist-Feminists also go as far as linking gender inequality to class inequality, and so would say that the falling rates of marriage and rising rates of divorce are signals of society in general becoming less controlled by capitalist men.

Feminists say that as women take on a more equal role in society, they are able to support themselves financially, and so can afford to be free from male oppression by either being single or cohabiting without having to rely on a man for financial support. 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 of religion in the UK has particularly impacted patterns of cohabitation and divorce. As the country as becomes increasingly secular, values that are traditionally associated with religion are declining. As many people, particularly younger generations, no longer consider sex outside of marriage sinful, they are far less likely to take that in to consideration when deciding to cohabit. The Church has also traditionally been supportive of marriage, and now that the Church has less and less influence over society’s values, marriage could be seen to be declining in value too.

Most religions uphold the value of marriage and therefore condemn divorce, so in the past religious couples have been keen to stay together if at all possible to avoid divorce. The decline of religious influence in the UK has meant that divorce rates have increased because people are less likely to consider religious views when making these decisions. There has also been an increase over the last 30 years in the variety of different faith influences in the UK, as society has become more multicultural.

This has lead to an increase in marriages where partners have different faiths, or one partner has no faith. This can lead to difficulties such as which faith to raise the children with, different family values and different expectations of marriage, which all cause conflict. There can also be pressure from the families who may not agree with the marriage. Consequently, divorce is more likely in inter-faith marriages, and this has helped increase the overall divorce rate. Postmodernism can also help to explain trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation in the last 30 years.

Postmodernist ideas say that choice for every individual is the most important thing, and puts personal freedom and satisfaction above all else. 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 is 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 and consumerism, 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. The emphasis on self-fulfilment means that people see less need to make a commitment to anything outside of themselves, from party politics to relationships, meaning that marriage rates have suffered. Putting the priority on the individual also means that if a person does not feel fulfilled by their partner, they should be completely free to leave and find a new one, which would explain the rise in divorce rates.

However, postmodernism has come under criticism for exaggerating many of the changes it attempts to explain, for example the decline of family as a source of identity. Social Action theorists for example say that identity is still formed by the family, which first teaches us how to interact with others. Critics say that while society is clearly changing, and this is evident in the patterns of marriage, cohabitation and divorce amongst other things, other sociological theories used in the past to explain these trends such as Marxism and Feminism cannot simply be disregarded.

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.

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