Not for everyone: Marriage in the news

Mar 3, 2023

Two separate pairs of hairs are holding each other fingers, after placing a wedding ring on one hand.

In his latest and exclusive article for Cansford, Family Law blogger John Bolch talks about the marriage state - or the lack of it - and how it will impact families, young people and children. 

It has often been said that marriage is not for everyone, and two recent but quite different news stories lend some truth to the statement.

Legal age of marriage rises to 18

The first story involves a fundamental change to the law on marriage in England and Wales.

For nearly a century the minimum age for marriage has been fixed at 16 years, although until 1987 anyone under 21 could only marry with parental consent. Since 1987 parental consent has only been required for anyone under 18 years.

Now the whole concept of parental consent has been swept away, and the minimum legal age for marriage has been raised to 18 years.

The change, which came into force on the 27th of February, obviously means that 16 and 17 year olds will no longer be allowed to marry (or enter a civil partnership), even if they have parental consent, and makes it illegal for anyone to arrange for children to marry. (Marriages entered into legally by anyone under 18 prior to 27th February will not be affected.)

So why the change?

I will let our esteemed Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab MP, explain.

He said: “This law will better protect vulnerable young people, by cracking down on forced marriage in our society. Those who act to manipulate children into marrying under-age will now rightly face the full force of the law.”

But it is not just about forced child marriage, consented to by the parents.

Research has shown that child marriage is often associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems, developmental difficulties for the children born to young mothers, and an increased risk of domestic abuse.

The change also honours the government’s commitment to a pledge made to the United Nations to end child marriage by 2030.

Census reveals fall in popularity of marriage

The second story concerns the publication of figures from the 2021 Census.

The figures, which are for England and Wales, show that the proportion of adults who have never married or been in a civil partnership has increased every decade, from 26.3% in 1991 to 37.9% in 2021, and that over the same time period there has been a decline in the proportion of adults who are married or in a civil partnership (including separated), from 58.4% to 46.9%.

Decline and fall

The decline in the popularity of marriage is greatest in the 25 to 35 age group, with 1.2 million more people unmarried in that age bracket than there were in 2011. Going back to 1991, 2.7 million 25- to 35-year-olds were then unmarried, and that figure is now more than double, at 5.8 million.

The figures have led to renewed calls for rights to be given to cohabitants, something I have written about here previously. As I explained then, under current law cohabitants have no right to financial support from their partner upon relationship breakdown, often leaving the financially weaker party in a precarious financial situation.

Unsurprisingly, the figures have also prompted comment from the pro-marriage lobby, who blame the decline in marriage on various factors, including government messaging often projecting cohabitation and marriage as equal, and a wedding industry that promotes expensive ceremonies, making the institution appear beyond reach for younger people.

It's not about the breaks

I’m not sure that the decline in marriage is due the effect of such external factors. Do people really decide against marriage because of the lack of tax breaks, or because they think they must spend £30,000 for a wedding (the average cost claimed by the marriage industry)?

I think not.

To me, it just seems that society has moved on from the idea that marriage is an essential part of life. At some point in the recent past the penny dropped that a fulfilled life didn’t have to involve tying the knot, and since then there has been an inevitable reduction in the number of couples doing so.

In other words, the reasons for the decline in marriage run much deeper, and the decline is not just some temporary ‘blip’ that will be reversed when external factors change.

Whether this is a bad thing, I will leave the reader to decide.


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Video credit: Video by Polina Tankilevitch:

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