Is marriage in terminal decline?

Jun 9, 2022

With so many of Cansford’s clients working in family law, family law blogger John Bolch discusses issues around marriage, parental responsibility for children and how the government needs to change to adapt to a changing society.

The Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) has just published its latest annual statistics for the number of marriages that took place in England and Wales, for the year 2019.

The statistics show that the marriage rate is continuing to decline.

.The statistics tell us that there were 219,850 marriages in total in England and Wales in 2019, which is a decrease of 6.4% from 2018, and that marriage rates for opposite-sex couples have fallen to their lowest on record since 1862.

With a few small bumps along the way, the marriage rate has been in consistent decline since about 1970, around the time when the law was reformed making divorce much easier.

And the decline has been huge. The number of marriages has halved since 1970, from over 400,000 a year to just over 200,000 a year now.

Cohabitation on the rise

The statistics confirm figures previously published by the ONS, for the numbers of different family types since 1996. Those figures are illuminating.

The figures show that there were 1,459,000 opposite sex cohabiting couple families in the UK in 1996, against 12,641,000 married couple families. By 2021 those figures had changed to 3,430,000 cohabiting couples against 12,625,000 married couples.

And during that time the number of families in the UK increased, from 16,560,000 to 19,286,000.

The net result of this is as follows: in 1996 8.8% of all families in the UK were opposite-sex cohabiting couples, whereas 76.3% were married couples. By 2021 the percentage of cohabiting couples had doubled to 17.8%, whereas the percentage of married couples had decreased to 65.5%.

Now, no one is suggesting that these changes will ultimately mean that no one will be getting married. Marriage is in decline, but it is far too soon to say that the decline is terminal.

However, there is no indication that the decline in marriage is about to stop any time soon, and it is not inconceivable that in a further fifty years fewer couples will be choosing to marry than to cohabit.


Society is clearly shifting, and has been consistently doing so in this respect for the last five decades, although quite where we will be when the present trends do come to an end, no one can yet say.

So what are the implications of all of this for family law?

The two principal strands of family law relate to arrangements for children and finances following family breakdown.

The law in relation to children is in the main the same irrespective of whether the child’s parents were married. But there are still differences.

Perhaps time for a re-think?

For example, an unmarried father does not automatically acquire parental responsibility for his child, in the same way that a father who is married to the mother does. This could of course have a bearing upon the child. Is it right that this should be so, in a society where most parents choose not to marry? Perhaps this will need to be re-thought.

And in relation to finances there is of course a huge difference when it comes to relationship breakdown. There is no automatic right for a person to make a financial claim against a former cohabitee, in the same way that a married person can make a claim against their spouse on divorce. This can of course lead to serious economic hardship for the less well-off party in a cohabiting relationship.

Looking forward

Back in 2007 the Law Commission recommended that the law be changed to give former cohabitants limited rights to claim financial support from their partners, as is the case in other countries. However, in 2011 the government announced that it would not be taking the recommendation forward.

Obviously, the number of people suffering economic hardship when a cohabiting relationship ends is likely to increase as the number of couples who choose not to marry goes up. Surely, there will come a time when the social implications of this will require that basic rights for cohabitees be introduced?

The idea that marriage is the ‘gold standard’ for relationships is clearly becoming outdated. Why should the law treat people (and their children) differently, just because they don’t comply with the establishment norm?

The time is surely approaching when the government must look again at the matter, and the law once again catch up with the reality of a changing society.

Image credit: Marvelmozhko – Pixabay

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