Is marriage set to become a minority pursuit?

Cohabitation|Divorce|Family|Relationships|October 10th 2012

Marriage is on the way to becoming a minority pursuit, according to a new report from think tank the Centre for Social Justice.

The report, called Forgotten Families, suggests that conventional marriage has become increasingly associated with affluence and the middle and upper classes: while only 50 per cent of couples on low incomes are married, 80 per cent in the £21,000 to £31,000 bracket have walked up the aisle. Rather remarkably, that figure rises to as much as 90 per cent for couples earning over £90,000.

By the middle of the century, in 28 years’ time, married couples will be in the minority, claims the paper, with poorer families bearing the brunt of  social breakdown:
“Thriving families and stable childhoods should be the foundations on which we build a better Britain. Strong families are the seedbed in which other reforms can take root. Yet there has, over the last 40 years, been an escalation in family breakdown (divorce and separation, father absence and dysfunctional relationships) and our research has shown that it is our poorest communities – and children – that have been most affected.”

The term ‘seedbed’ is a telling one. For the Centre, which was established y Work and Pensions Secretary and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, conventional marriage is the bedrock of society, something that needs to be in place in order for other social reforms to be successful. Despite its founder, the Centre’s report criticizes the coalition government and what it sees as a failure to address social stability:
“This Government’s lack of a clear and coherent strategy to strengthen UK families not only contrasts starkly with their early and sustained action to reform welfare and education but also threatens to undermine gains in these other vital policy areas…. family breakdown (and other major issues facing families) can never be adequately tackled by tagging ‘the family’ onto other agendas. In fact, opportunities to put families at the forefront are repeatedly being missed, despite this Government’s pledge to make this the most family-friendly country in the world.”

The report was launched earlier this week at the Conservative Party conference.

The vision presented in report, of a society in which divorce and failure to marry equals social breakdown, is frankly rather coloured and one I cannot accept. We now live in a pluralistic society in which people are finding new ways to create family units, such as cohabitation, and most of us welcome such tolerance. As lawyers we can advise cohabiting couples of their current lack of legal rights but ultimately we must respect their decision not to marry. We recently took a look at a study from the University of Leeds which suggests that cohabiting couples, for the first time ever, are now as likely as married ones to have children.

Is it really fair to such families to brand them, to quote the report, as “far less stable” than married ones?

Yes, divorce often causes heartache and distress but it can also be the beginning of a much happier and more fulfilling phase of life.

The fact remains too, after years of stalling or falling, divorce rates are rising again. Figures recently published by the Ministry of Justice show a two per cent increase in the number of decrees absolute issued in the second quarter of this year compared to the same period last year.

Could this indicate a slow exit from recession? There is always a noted rise in the number of divorces as economic conditions improve. It is often only when couples have access to ready cash that they can afford to go their separate ways. Divorces most recently peaked in 2003 at the height of the last boom.

In other words, divorce may not equal decline but prosperity!

Last year, I had the honour of addressing an Oxford Union debate. I was speaking in favour of the motion ‘This house believes that marriage is an outdated institution’. My argument was, essentially, that ever greater number s of people are resisting marriage because of the advent of the ‘equal sharing principle’: the view that if a marriage ends, the wealthier partner (usually but not always the man) should split their assets equally.

I also noted that cohabitation, the supposedly modern alternative, is in some ways a reversion to the older order because it comes with none of the hard-won legal rights that accompany the end of a marriage.

People voted against me, but am I actually being proved right? Marriage seems to be going firmly out of fashion and even when people do marry, they reserve the right to opt out of the commitment at any time.

This is social change, not the social decay depicted in the Centre’s report. Fewer couples feel the need to marry for all the religious, social, cultural and economic reasons that were relevant fifty years ago, and similarly they see no binding reason to stay together whether they marry or not. When they’ve reached the point at which they wish to go, they go.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. JamesB says:

    Getting Married is like the saying about crime, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” If you are rich you can perhaps afford marriage and divorce, if you are not you can’t.

  2. Natalia says:

    Not necessarily a bad thing marriage being in decline. It is better to be happy and single than unhappy and married.

  3. Observer says:

    Fine by me, but have they resolved the little matter of sexual discrimination yet, which says that unmarried fathers have no parental responsibility and are therefore not recognized as fathers?
    James does sound correct here – marriage does sound increasingly catastrophic if you are a man, and the message that men seem to be getting from the government is don’t have kids unless you really don’t care what happens to them.
    You almost want to advise all your male friends to avoid falling into the trap of marriage with children.

  4. Lucy says:

    According to me marriages has been under a threat due to every increasing inflation and taxes which disconnects a person from the family in the need to generate enough income for his/her family. When a person starts distancing himself/herself the problem starts to grow and which then results into disastrous results.

  5. JamesB says:

    Agree with that, with the threat being ‘the need to generate enough income for his/her family’, especially with the need for 2 incomes and risk of divorce.

  6. TonyC says:

    Marriage has been in terminal decline for some time now, and it’s hardly surprising. It’s been turned into a mechanism for the transferring of resources from men to women. The divorce process has been so absolutely corrupted it defies belief at the way in which men are treated. A woman gains rights when she marries, a man gains no rights but a heap load of responsibilities that will continue on well after the marriage ends. Sure, on paper, the way the laws are written, they are neutral. In practise, however, they are not. Marriage today amounts to slavery for men. In America, it’s astonishing how men are treated. I often wonder why men do not organise and fight back against such evil.
    I have now been with a new woman for two years. She has two young children. She would like to cohabit. I would be happy to cohabit providing the State keeps their enormous nose out of my business. I will never ever marry again. I never want to be treated like that again by courts/solicitors. If cohabitation laws are bought in because work is drying up for solicitors then I, like many men, will refuse to cohabit just like men have been refusing to marry in increasing numbers.
    We’ll all end up living alone despite most of us not wanting to, simply because the busybodies will not leave us alone.

  7. JamesB says:

    I agree with that and am also on Marriage strike for the same reasons.

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