Most people argue that the family is in ‘crisis’. They point to the rapidly increasing divorce rate, cohabitation, illegitimacy and number of single parent families.
What is happening to Marriage?
Marriage has increased in popularity, reaching a peak in 1971. Since then there has been a significant decline in the number of marriages, from 459000 in 1971 to 250000 in 2001.
There is a decline in first marriages where neither partner has been married before. But there is a growing number of remarriages, in which one or both partners have been divorced; these marriages constitute 15% of all marriages in 1971 and 40% in 1996.
The average age at which people first marry has steadily increased in recent decades. Since 1971 it has risen from 24 to 30 for men and from 22 to 28 for women. By 1998 there were relatively few young people who were married. Of those under the age of 24 just 3% of men and 7% of women were married. More than one third of all 18 – 49 year old women are now single.
Is Marriage still the Norm?
Despite all the arguments about the decline of marriage, it continues to be the case that most people in Britain grow up and form a nuclear family for part of their adult life. Most couples who get married or have stable cohabitation relationships have children.
The family unit is still mainly one in which children are brought up by two ‘parents’. The majority (71%) of young people live in families headed by a couple. Just less than a quarter (24%) live in single parent households. The majority of lone-parent families (90%) are headed by women, and the major reason is separation or divorce from the male partner, although some women are single or widowed.
Cohabitation is most likely to be found among those aged 25 – 34 years. Over one in five (22%) in this age group currently cohabit. The majority (59%) of those who live together subsequently go on to marry that partner.
In some respects marriage is more popular because people marry more often. The percentage of remarriage has risen from 14% in 1961 to 40% in 1996.
Living together as a couple is no longer seen as ‘living in sin’. Increasingly the idea of cohabiting is being viewed as respectable. Two thirds (67%) of the British public now regard cohabitation as acceptable, even when the couple have no intention in getting married.
The idea that people should get married if they have children is also fading away. In 1989, 7 in 10 people held this view. By 2001 the proportion had fallen to just over half (54%). Nor is there much support these days for the belief that married couples make better parents – only 1 in 4 (27%) think this is the case.
Marriage Patterns for African-Caribbean’s and Asians
Research carried out at Essex University in 2000 indicates that only 39% of British-born African-Caribbean adults under the age of 60 are in a formal marriage compared with 60% of white adults. Moreover this group is more likely than any other group to inter-marry. The number of mixed-race partnerships means that very few African-Caribbean men and women are married to each other. Only one quarter of Caribbean children live with two black parents.
There is also a tradition of women living independently from their children’s father in the African-Caribbean community. This could be partly explained historically, from the days of slavery, when husbands and wives were sold to separate plantations. But Wilson (1987) argues that a black woman may be reluctant to marry (or live with) a man whose chances of getting / keeping a job are low and make him an unreliable source of income for themselves and their children. Consequently half of Caribbean families with children are now single parents.
Marriage in Asian families whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh is mainly arranged and consequently there is little inter-marriage with other religions or cultures. Relationships between Asian...