‘Not Amused’? Fewer Marriages, Cohabitation and Queen Victoria 

Published on 24 May, 2022 | Ellen Fell

For those of us alive today, the 19th-century is truly another age.

No-one remains alive from the 1800s, a time of Napoleon Bonaparte, the American Civil War and, in Britain, Queen Victoria: figures whom we are only really aware of from history books.

More than merely the passage of time, we would probably all agree that life has moved on radically since then.

In science, business and technology, things which our Victorians ancestors might have regarded as mere science fiction have become everyday reality.

However, there are still some similarities, at least.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just published its annual snapshot of marriage in England and Wales (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2019).

It reveals that there were 219,850 marriages during 2019. Not only does that constitute a drop of 6.4 per cent on the previous year, it means that marriage rates were at their lowest level since 1862.

We have, of course, just emerged from a global pandemic, during which many marriages were delayed or called off altogether.

Yet these figures pre-date Covid-19, so why should they be so low?

It should be said that overall marriage numbers have been in decline for some time. The 2019 figure is almost half the number in 1972 (426,241).

Not even the introduction of same-sex marriage through the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013 (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/30/contents/enacted/data.htm) has arrested the reduction.

The 6,728 marriages between same-sex couples in 2019 marked a decrease of nearly three per cent on the previous year.

As I’ve been telling David Wilcock, the Mail Online’s Deputy Political Editor, there remain some people for whom marriage remains something of a gold standard (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10832933/Number-marriages-slumps-lowest-level-QUEEN-VICTORIA-throne.html).

The latest ONS’ data shows that those groups include women aged 35 to 39 years and women between the ages of 60 and 64 years. For all other age groups, marriage rates either stayed the same or declined.

I believe that one of the principal reasons for another fall in marriage numbers is the change in how couples form relationships.

Further ONS figures demonstrate how cohabitation has grown in popularity as the fondness for weddings has waned (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/populationestimatesbymaritalstatusandlivingarrangements/2020).

Among those who have never previously been in a marriage or civil partnership, cohabitation rose by almost one-third in the decade up to 2020.

Being in an unmarried partnership has definite appeal for those who might have endured a negative experience of divorce.

It is, of course, far too soon to see whether the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act, which came into effect at the start of last month, will address that (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/11/contents/enacted).

The Act gained Royal Assent in June 2020 and was heralded as a means of reducing friction on divorce by doing away with the need to apportion blame for the breakdown of a marriage.

Given that the next edition in the series of marriage data published by the ONS will cover the first year of the pandemic, we are likely to see a further reduction.

It is difficult to say whether the number of couples choosing to hold marriages this year – now that restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the UK have been completely removed – will make up the difference.

Marriage, cohabitation and the advent of civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples now provide a greater variety of household structures to reflect the different needs and preferences of men and women across the country and across all age groups.

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