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.