The latest marriage figures were released today.
They relate to marriages formed in 2016, including the second full year's figures for same sex marriages (which came into being on 29 March 2014).
In 2016 there were 242,774 marriages of opposite sex couples (92.7% of all marriages) in England and Wales, a rise of 1.7% compared to 2015. In addition there were 7,019 marriages of same sex couples, an increase of 8.1% year on year (and 2.8% of all marriages). Marriage rates remain at historical lows despite a small increase in the number of people who got married in 2016.
In 2016, for the first time ever religious ceremonies made up less than one-quarter of all marriages. Civil ceremonies among opposite sex couples increased by 3.6%, while religious ceremonies decreased by 4.2% since 2015. For same sex couples, only 0.9% of ceremonies were religious.
Much has been written in recent years about the decline in the popularity of opposite sex marriage, as more and more couples cohabit without marrying. Since December 2005, same sex couples had available to them the option of forming a civil partnership, though their popularity waned with the advent of same sex marriage. More recently, there have been well-publicised calls for the availability of civil partnerships to be extended to opposite sex couples - Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld took their fight for that right to the Supreme Court last year and won, and Tim Loughton MP's private member's bill on this issue received Royal Assent this week, granting opposite sex couples in England and Wales the right to form a civil partnership (as opposed to marriage) for the first time.
After a steady decline in marriage rates since a peak in 1940 (471,000 marriages), there has been some resurgence in the popularity of marriage in recent years (and especially in the immediate post-recession years):
|Year||No. of Marriages*|
It has been said that the global economic crisis put marriage on the back burner for many between 2006 and 2010 and that in the years that followed, marriage saw something of a renaissance (2013 being an outlier, some have said perhaps because of the unlucky connotations of the number 13). However, the latest marriage figure and rate is reflective of a continued general decline in the popularity of marriage since the Second World War.
People feel differently about marriage as an institution today. A notable decline in religiousness could hold the blame for this attitude shift.
What is more, there have been social shifts. Before 1970, more men than women acted as the breadwinners in marriage. As a consequence of that dynamic, some women may have used commitment as a tool for economic stability. But as women have gained spots in the workforce, they've attained the ability to financially support themselves, which has brought greater social and political freedoms.
Another explanation for the decline in marriage rates is the surge in the number of cohabiting couples. In 2017, statistics published by the ONS revealed that there were 19 million families in the UK, a 15% increase from 16.6 million in 1996. The married/civil partner couple family remained the most common in 2017, with 12.9 million such families. The second largest family type was the cohabiting couple family at 3.3 million families.
Cohabiting couple families have been (and remain) the fastest growing family type between 1996 and 2017, more than doubling from 1.5 million to 3.3 million families. That figure is expected to exceed 6 million by 2032.
"The message from the latest statistics is stark - marriage rates for opposite-sex couples now continue to be at a historically low level following a gradual long-term decline since the early 1970s. However, despite this overall decline, marriage rates at older ages continue to be in the ascendancy; marriage rates for opposite-sex couples in 2016 were lower at all ages compared with 2006, except for men aged 60 years and over and women aged 50 years and over.
There are various things that policy makers should take from these statistics:
First, the need for reform of the law for cohabiting couples, so that they have clearer rights at the end of their relationship, whether through separation or the death of one of the parties. The Law Commission advocated reform in this area as long ago as 2007. It was last debated in the House of Lords, at the second reading stage of Lord Marks' Cohabitation Rights Bill, two weeks ago (though it is fair to say that there were some clear dissenting voices). We are sitting on a ticking time bomb as people sleepwalk their way into cohabiting relationships, without realising that there is no such thing as common law marriage and that they may be severely disadvantaged at the end of the relationship.
Second, the need for a formal footing in law for pre-nuptial agreements. One of the reasons for the phenomenon of "silver splicers" is that around 1 in 3 marriages are second marriages as people are living longer, and in turn people feel more readily able to enter into marriage later in life knowing that nuptial agreements are being respected ever more by English courts. But ideally, as the Law Commission proposed in 2014, they should be given a statutory footing so that there is greater clarity in this area.
It would also be informative if government were to look again at the way in which marriages are formalised. In late 2015 the Law Commission looked at this area and concluded that the law does not allow people to marry in in a way which meets their needs and wishes and is therefore meaningful for them. In the October 2018 Budget, the Government announced that, in connection with promoting greater choice of wedding venues, it had asked the Law Commission to propose options for “a simpler and fairer system to give modern couples meaningful choice. Given societal changes, and the fact that marriage is widely regarded as the most stable relationship within which to raise children, a modern society requires a modern approach towards marriage.
Society is changing, as reflected in these statistics. It is vital that the law reflects the many ways in which couples form relationships so as not to risk leaving them financially vulnerable when the relation ends through separation or death".
*This reflects only opposite sex marriage figures, for consistency.