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Britons ever more reluctant to marry

A new analysis of data from the 2011 Census tells a clear story, and it is one will already be familiar to many a family lawyer: Britons are increasingly reluctant to walk down the aisle.

According to analysis, only 47 per cent of people old enough to marry had actually done so in the census year. Ten years before, when the previous census was carried out, the proportion stood at 51 per cent. Marriage is now officially, it seems, a minority pursuit.

Meanwhile, the number of divorcees increased by a fifth in the decade to 2011 – reaching 4.5 million people, and there were around 113,000 civil partnerships in existence that year. The number of people who described themselves as ‘single’ also increased by a substantial quarter, reaching the rather amazing figure of 17.8 million. That is close to one third of the entire population of the country!

But inevitably it is that marriage percentage that has attracted the most attention. Of course there is nothing especially new about the idea that ever greater numbers of people are choosing to live together without marrying. Just last year we heard that the number of people doing so has almost doubled over the last 16 years, and that cohabiting couples are now just as likely as married ones to have children.

For people in their 20s and 30s, moving in with your partner before either of you even thinks about marriage has apparently become the default, and it is not difficult to see why. From a certain point of view it makes perfect sense to try your partner out for size before, as it were, ‘sealing the deal’ – to see how long you can tolerate their quirks and bad habits, and decide whether you can imagine living with them day after day for what may be decades. A few years down the line, if it all works out, such couples may start thinking about marriage.

But of course, marriage takes effort, expense, and a public declaration of commitment. Many, I’m sure, find it easier to just cruise along indefinitely as an unmarried couple. Others may be open to a wedding themselves but not wish to rock the boat and drive a marriage-shy partner away.

However, as every family lawyer will confirm, this pragmatic, ‘try before you buy’ approach to relationships has one massive flaw: the law.

Despite the extraordinarily persistent myth of the ‘common law spouse’, cohabitation has no real status in English law, which remains firmly wedded to the idea of marriage. Break up with your partner and you will have almost no financial or property rights beyond child support, even if you have been together for decades.

For all its precision and power, the law is sometimes ponderous and slow to react to social change. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have long believed that English law must recognise cohabitation in some shape or form, for the sake of justice, and these figures only make the case for reform still more pressing.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Andrew says:

    No: the figures show that fewer people want to make the legal and financial commitment which marriage entails, and that’s their choice, and it should be respected. But I don’t think you and I are going to agree!

  2. Tulsa Divorce Lawyer Matt Ingham says:

    Here in the USA the data probably supports the same conclusion that people are marrying less and cohabitating more.

  3. JamesB says:

    If you have divorce on demand then the marriage vows mean nothing and it is same as a business agreement with a pre nup, which I suppose takes the shine off of it.

  4. Luke says:

    Actually the ‘real’ marriage rate in the UK is even worse than this – it is believed by the government that 1 in 5 marriages in London and probably most big cities in the UK are sham marriages to get a UK passport.

    I’m of course with Andrew on this one and disagree with Marilyn – in fact the idea of legally entangling somebody without a contract and forcing them be asset stripped and pay alimony in such circumstances is in my view basically theft – but I knew it would happen because the whole system requires this wealth transfer to continue and men avoiding marriage is particularly unhelpful in doing that under the current law.

  5. Tulsa Divorce Lawyer Matt Ingham says:

    JamesB makes a pretty good point – it takes the romanticness out of marriage and instead relegates it to being not much more than a business arrangement.

  6. Stitchedup says:

    Having cohabited and then separated I see no need for change in the law. Constructive trusts provide more than enough protection for women in my experience, the man can quite easily be stripped of his assets even though he never married.

    Society has indeed changed, less people are getting married (for good reason in my opinion, but also women now have every opportunity to follow a career and provide for themselves. Indeed, few couples can afford to live off anything less than 2 salaries so I don’t see the need for spousal maintenance if the woman already has a career…. staying at home with the children is a lifestyle choice these days.

    You could say the law is two steps behind. The time to introduce more cohabitation rights has gone, that may have been a step in the right direction 30 or 40 years ago but not today. To be truly up to date they need to remove marriage rights as women now have every opportunity to provide for themselves.

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