The end of marriage?

family life

“stable families and marriage are a major part of the glue that holds our society together”

Jeremy Lefroy MP & Fiona Bruce MP, The Telegraph, 18th August 2014

Last Friday the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest annual statistical bulletin for Families and Households in the UK. For those who so passionately support the institution of marriage, it must make pretty grim reading. The headline statistic from the bulletin is that cohabiting couple families remain the fastest growing family type in the UK.

The ONS puts the figures for this year in context, by comparing them with the figures for 1996. During that twenty year period the number of cohabiting couples in the country has more than doubled, from 1.5 million families to 3.3 million families. That’s roughly an increase from 9 per cent of all families in 1996 to 17 per of all families in 2016 (the fact that this is not a doubling of the percentage is due to the increased number of families since 1996). To put that in context, the percentage of married couple families has decreased over the twenty years, from 77 per cent to 71 per cent (although there are also now some civil partner couple families). The percentage of lone parent families has stayed about the same, increasing from 14 per cent in 1996 to 15 per cent in 2016.

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to make some extrapolations from the figures, on the assumption that this trend is going to continue at the same rate. My rough calculation suggests that in twenty years about a third of all families will be cohabiting couples, and in forty years’ time that will be up to two thirds.

Now, I doubt that the increase in the proportion of cohabiting couples will continue at the same rate for the next forty years, but whatever happens it does seem highly likely that the increase will continue for some time to come. I think a reasonable guess is that in forty years between a third and a half of all families are likely to be cohabiting couple families. Whatever, it is clear that marriage will continue to decline, and become less important.

That that is a fact can be shown by at least two other realities for the supporters of marriage. Firstly, I think it is undeniable that, like it or not, many, if not most, people in this country no longer think of marriage as permanent. Yes, there are still a lot of people who do think that way, but you only have to look at the divorce statistics and the number of people who have multiple marriages to see that for many marriage is a disposable commodity, like so many other things these days. Even for those who don’t treat marriage that lightly, divorce is a much easier choice than it once was, and it certainly has little of the stigma it once had. It is particularly noticeable, for example, that divorce has increased amongst older couples, who no longer feel bound together for life, as was previously the case.

The other reality is that all attempts to encourage marriage have, self-evidently, failed. Take, for example, the government’s (admittedly rather feeble) attempt to promote marriage by re-introducing a tax perk for married couples last year. According to HM Revenue and Customs less than a quarter of couples eligible for it have even bothered to claim it. Other, non-government, initiatives such as the Marriage Foundation that was launched in 2012 have also obviously failed to reverse the downward marriage trend.

So, what will the implications of the end of marriage as the dominant family type be for the country? Will it bring disaster and the breakdown of society, as some predict? Or is it just part of a natural progression away from tradition and convention? Will it simply be that individuals will be less tightly tied to one another, and freer to live their lives as they wish? And will that mean that families will, on average, be less stable than they were? If so, what will the implications of that be for children and couples who separate?

These are serious questions that we are going to have to address, and sooner rather than later. We are, for example, going to have to get a move on with finally giving proper rights to cohabiting couples when they separate. As for the idea that marriage is part of the glue that holds society together I’m not entirely convinced, but if it is then we may have to find some other form of adhesive, and pretty quickly.

The ONS bulletin can be found here.

Image by David Joyce via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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Andrew - November 9, 2016 at 8:31pm

To new cohabiting couples – perhaps although by the time you have defined what is cohabitation and how it is to be proved you might find that you might as well not bother
Existing couples? No, unless they formally and publicly choose – we woudl need a name for that ceremony, wouldn’t we, and ideas?

spinner - November 10, 2016 at 12:09pm

Cohabiting laws are fine as long as it’s not assigned by default, both people in the relationship need to formally consent as in with a marriage by signing a document to agree to be governed by the new laws. If you don’t take peoples consent then you will force a lot of people to live by themselves as they won’t want to expose themselves to being involved with lawyers.

D - November 10, 2016 at 2:54pm

That’s my feeling, which a lot of people would disagree with. The problem being where one party disadvantages themselves career wise/financially (i.e. childcare, homemaker) to the benefit of the other and this is then accounted for on separation. Personally I wouldn’t want to have that situation nor be ‘led’/’forced’ into that… and by extension wouldn’t expect someone to claim against me. Nor would I expect to responsible for providing income to another able bodied adult after a relationship ends (or indeed expect someone to do the same for me). Obviously the law doesn’t see things like that and it isn’t what people expect from marriage or the mythical common law marriage. Everything is seen as a single pot with division based on need and not the state before relationship or by weight of contribution.

The Family Law association does believe in a default, opt-out by mutual consent. Unsurprisingly no-one really seems bothered to educate people against issues like common law marriage not existing and the massive impact this has.

spinner - November 10, 2016 at 4:01pm

People need to be free to decide how they run their own relationships, if they want the law involved they can sign a legal document and marry, if they want marriage lite they could sign a legal cohabitation document but if they don’t want commitment for whatever reason to each other then that has to be respected. We already have the CSA and other laws to protect and provide for children so we are only talking about the adults in the relationship.

D - November 11, 2016 at 11:51am

Exactly 🙂 There’s no way you can remove the possibility of divorce from marriage .. so you have to consider the implications including that multiple marriages over the space of a lifetime are possible… and again that arrangement might not be choice.
Child support is there seems to be a fair unfair system in that both sides of separating couples have issues with how it works / doesn’t work.

JamesB - November 10, 2016 at 1:30pm

I did read this article John. Much better than your usual father bashing.

I don’t know what the answers are, either.

Perhaps the feminists and lawyers should have thought that one through before they destroyed the institution of marriage with their misandrist pandering to homosexuals laws.

Comment on newsnight last night about Trump, from Alan Greenspan, the whole developed world is struggling with voter disenfranchisement and anger on how they see their societies, well, the whole world except the Philippines, (his words, not mine). Perhaps there is a link on them being the only ones without these laws of yours so you ask for new laws, no thanks. When in a hole stop digging. Just my thoughts. You are asking the right questions for a change though which is a nice change and pleasant surprise to read.

JamesB - November 10, 2016 at 2:51pm

Is it coincidence that Philippines has more content society because they are the only country without divorce on demand? I think not. The glue that bonds society together? Not sure.

Personally, the marriage laws are rubbish, so people avoid them, neither side is backing down…

I suppose you could marry them against their will in the form of cohabitation agreements as you propose..

Unfortunately I don’t think that will work as people seek natural law and that isn’t it. The answer has to be more natural law. By that I mean don’t stitch people up on divorce and allow pre-nups.

JamesB - November 10, 2016 at 2:56pm

You know what, I don’t even think that’s it. Repeal the last 75 years worth of family law perhaps. Then we might have more families and less nonsense like this in the media. I said I don’t have the answers. Neither do you. I am less guilty though as I didn’t contribute to the mess by voting in politicians or lawyers who made the mess.

I have another question, how come so many people are marrying different nationalities?

Example, Farage, Johnson, Trump, Corbyn, me, to name but a few straight from my head.

Andy - November 10, 2016 at 3:36pm

Does this not tell you that couples are getting wise to the issues if marriage fails..
Typically the increasing pre nips and agreements tell the hard truth of it all..what’s mine is mine and tours is yours etc..

I don’t blame them one bit..this is all fine untill cohabitation laws take a step forward, then treated as if married,.skyping each other will be next it’s safer…I do have to laugh…

Apart from that, the trend is now to seek guidance before you take the plunge, if you do tie the knot be in for a long and bumpy ride with costs if all go wrong, be it on your head but I hope in situations such as marriage it all ends up happy..don’t quote me on that one.. .

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