After A Fashion: Could Marriage Be On The Rebound? 

Published on 14 July, 2017 | Claire Reid

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Among William Shakespeare’s many contributions to the English language, one is his ability to distill acute observations on romance into the kind of pithy phrases which linger long in the individual memory and even longer in the collective vocabulary.

In ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, no less, he remarked that “the course of true love never did run smooth”.

It’s a concept which, sadly, I’m fairly familiar with as a lawyer who has acted in far too many divorces to remember.

However, the quote seems to relate as much to the fortunes of marriage itself as those who choose to wed.

It’s no secret that since the reform of divorce law in the early 1970s, the number of marriages in England and Wales has fallen dramatically.

In fact, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in March this year, the figure was down by just over 40 per cent between 1972 and 2014 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2014).

Divorce is not solely to blame because it too is in sharp decline. Only last month, the ONS revealed that the number of divorces in 2015 was down almost 10 per cent on the year before (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2015). Even that reduction paled when compared to the 34 per cent drop since 2003.

Cohabitation is certainly a major factor. There are now more than twice as many couples living together while unmarried than there were in 1996.

That trend is confirmed by yet more ONS research. Close to 10 per cent of those aged 16 and over are cohabiting having never been married or in a civil partnership. A further 2.8 per cent of those who were previously in formalised relationships now cohabit (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/populationestimatesbymaritalstatusandlivingarrangements/2002to2016#married-people-are-the-largest-group-in-the-population-aged-16-and-over).

Even so, dig a little deeper and the received wisdom of marriage in freefall while cohabitation becomes ever more common is given a somewhat different gloss.

The same new package of ONS’ material shows that marriage might actually be back in fashion – at least for some people.

In four of the last five years, for instance, there were more marriages than the year before.

Last year, there were almost one million more people who had tied the knot than when the 14-year period in question began.

We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, though, in believing that marriage will recover the status which it once had in households across the country. Too much has arguably changed in society – in and out of the home and workplace – over the last four decades alone for that to happen.

Marriage, though, is clearly still regarded as something of a gold standard in relationships. That’s not just the case for heterosexual but for same-sex couples whose campaign to be allowed to marry was satisfied with the passing of legislation by the coalition Government in July 2013.

The increase in marriage numbers is not dramatic but it would appear to illustrate that many couples wish to have a legal seal of approval for their relationships.

In my opinion, the key difference between contemporary spouses and their parents or grandparents is that they understand the greater likelihood that their marriages may not survive all that modern life has to throw at them.

The ONS recently described how 42 per cent of marriages now, unfortunately, end in divorce.

That may well be why more couples – straight and same-sex – opt to do so after putting prenuptial agreements in place to provide the means of possibly simplifying and abbreviating the process of dividing assets in the event that their partnerships collapse.

Of course, married couples enjoy greater protection than that afforded to cohabitees who go their separate ways.

Realising that fact has led a number of unmarried couples to wed. I believe that development might become even more common an occurrence in the years to come.

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