Sociology-families and households revision!

families and Households

Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation:

Changing Patterns of Marriage

Explaining the Long Term Decrease in Marriage

  • There are four main sociological explanations when explaining the long term decrease in marriage.

1. Economic factors – increasing property prices in recent years may be one factor leading to couples delaying marriage until later life. The average deposit on a first time home is now over £30,000 and with the average cost of a wedding being £18,000, it is more financially viable to buy a house first and then marry in their 30’s opposed to marring earlier and then having to rent or live with parents

2. Changing gender roles – Liberal Feminists point out that now more than half of the workforce is now female and so women no longer have to be married to be financially secure. According to the genderquake theory, economic power is shifting to women with the majority of jobs in the service sector and so marriage is a poor option for women in a female economy.

3. Moral decline – the New Right blame the decline of marriage on moral decline as a result of the breakdown of social institutions and due to too much acceptance of diversity. The result is an inability to commit to each other and they view this as both bad for society and bad for the socialisation of the young generation.

4. Consumer society – Postmodernists see the decline of marriage as a result of the consumer society characterised by greater individual choice and freedom which is part of the process of individualisation. As such, as well as picking out materialistic goods and items, we also can pick out our own lifestyle and life course and as a result, marriage is a matter of individual choice. Additionally they cite secularisation as another cause of a decline in marriage as there is less social stigma attached to cohabiting or remarrying after divorce.

  • Giddens’ work on ‘Pure Relationships’ demonstrates how although people may still value marriage, changes in the social structure may make relationships harder to start or maintain.

Explaining the Trends in Marriage

  • Morgan sees rising cohabitation as part of a trend in which marriage is going out of fashion.
    • Rather than acting as a prelude to married life, Morgan believes that it represents an increase in the number of sexual partners and the frequency of partner change.
    • Cohabiting couples stay together for less time than married couples.
  • Chandler argues cohabitation is a relatively stable, long term alternative to marriage.
    • The BAS found evidence of increasing cohabitation outside of marriage with younger people being more likely to cohabit than older couples. The survey also shows support for long term relationships, with the average cohabiting couple having lived together for 6.5 years.
  • Giddens points out that the nature of love and relationships has changed in late modern society.
    • In the 18th Century marriage was only for money, wealth and status. It allowed the family name to be passed on and was rarely based on personal choice. It also served to produce children as it was the most obvious institution to perform such function. It was love that was for drama and sex. The two could never mix.
    • This changed in the early 19th Century as love should come first, and practical considerations second. Marriage should be the consequence of love. Today, most people expect to have a choice in who we marry, and to marry someone whom we share a profound emotional connection with.
    • As a result there are much greater expectations such as a superb lover, devoted parent, and attentive counsellor. In such a way, relationships will only continue so long as the partners’ needs are met. If the needs are not met, the relationship will breakdown resulting in a pattern of serial monogamy.
  • Evaluations:
    • People are not open and honest enough and don’t talk about their relationship as confluent love or a pure relationship.
    • Situations regarding serial monogamy become increasingly complex with the involvement of children.

Alternatives for Married Couples

  • People’s attitudes towards marriage have changed so that it is no longer seen as a necessary tradition or sacred duty. As a result marriage rates have declined drastically and marriage is now seen as a choice.
    • As a result, there is greater family diversity.
  • Most people still couple up and cohabitation has increased. There are currently over 2 million cohabiting couples in the UK and it is the fastest growing family type.
    • Cohabiting couples are more likely to breakup, so relationships have become more unstable resulting in a pattern of serial momogamy.
  • Higher levels of divorce create more single parent households, single person households, and reconstituted households.
  • It is important to not emphasise the decline of marriage as most households are still headed by a married couple.

Changing Patterns in Divorce

Key Divorce Statistics from the ONS

  • There has been a long term increase in the overall divorce rate.
  • Since 2005 the divorce rate has declined.
  • It is expected that 42% of marriages will end in divorce.
  • One in seven divorces are a result of adultery.
  • 9% of couples divorcing had both been divorced before.
  • Women were granted 65% of all divorces.
  • 71% of divorces were first marriages.
  • The increase in divorce rate was particularly rapid following the 1969 Divorce Act.

Explaining the Long Term Increase in the Divorce Rate

  • There are six main reasons to explain the long term increase in divorce rate.

1. Social Policy – following the 1969 Divorce Act, there was a rapid increase in divorce, particularly in the early 70’s as it extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’ making it possible if only one partner wanted a divorce.

  • This cannot explain all of the increase, given that the divorce rate had been rising prior to the law change and continued to for many years after.

2. Economic Factors – increasing inequality in the UK means that the lower socioeconomic classes get paid less compared to the rising living costs. Both partners now need to do paid work in order to get by, which puts a strain on the marriage causing higher numbers getting divorced.

  • Divorce rates are in fact higher amongst poorer families.

3. Functionalism – There are a number of reasons linked to the Functional Fit Theory that explain the increase in divorce.

  • Goode – conflict has increased but the family has become much more isolated from other kin, placing increased burden on the marital couple who have little support from other relatives.
  • Dennis – the fewer functions the family performs, the weaker the bonds between husband and wife.
  • Allan and Crowe – the family is no longer an economic unit, making it easier for families to break up.

4. The New Right – Increasingly generous welfare benefits for single mothers is a crucial factor which allows women to divorce. If divorce occurs within a family, 9/10 times the child/children will stay with the mum, making it difficult to find work, hence benefits are a necessary link in the chain of explaining increasing divorce.

  • It is also a sign of wider moral decline.

5. Feminism – changing gender roles and women’s position in society is crucial to explain the increase in divorce rate. Women are more likely to be employed and less financially dependent on their husbands and thus freer to end a marriage.

  • Giddens – the impact of the Feminist movement and advances in contraception mean women are freer to leave unhappy marriages.
  • Feminists acknowledge that the advances of women can be exaggerated as women are paid less than men and traditional gender norms still remain in many families.

6. Postmodernism – Both religion and traditional values are in decline. As a result there is less social stigma attached to getting a divorce and so people are freer to choose to get a divorce. This reflects the declining importance of social structure and the rise of consumer culture.

  • Giddens – the nature of marriage has changed as the nature of intimate relationships has changed. In 18th Century, marriage was more an economic arrangement as ideas about romantic love developed. During late modernity, plastic sexuality developed which was about sex for pleasure, not conceiving children. Relationships and marriage is no longer seen as permanent. Marriage now is based on confluent love, which is dependent on both partners benefiting from the relationship. Couples no longer stay together due to a sense of duty, so divorce and relationship breakdown are much more common.
  • Beck – divorce has increase due to individualisation. There are more opportunities for individuals, especially women and the opportunity form individuals to make more decisions about every aspect of their lives. Also increased conflict has emerged from increased choice and uncertainty which leads to chaotic relationships explaining the higher divorce rate.

1969 Divorce Act

  • Separation was now allowed as a reason for divorce so now more couples were able to get a divorce without faking it.
  • Only one partner could file for divorce regardless of gender and have it granted, in contrast to the previous law.
    • This change in law alone is insufficient to explain the increasing divorce rate as prior to these changes, if a couple wanted a divorce, they just faked it. Additionally there are other social factors to consider as the divorce rate began its steep increase prior to the reform which was a means of catching up with social attitudes.

Alternatives to Divorce

  • Legal Separation – An arrangement by which a couple remain married but live apart following a court order.
  • Empty Shell Marriage – refers to when the spouses continue to live under the same roof but as separate individuals.
  • Desertion – the act by which a person abandons and forsakes their marriage without justification.

Explaining the Recent Decline in Divorce Rate

  • The divorce rate is now the lowest since 1974.
    • The increase of immigrants from more traditional societies can account for some of this decline which keeps divorce rates down, and birth rates up.
    • The decline of marriage can account for a more significant reduction in divorce rate.
    • As less people get married, or get married later in life, it leaves less room for divorce.

Perspectives Applied to Declining Marriage and Increasing Divorce


  • They would view the decline of marriage as tradition as a good thing because traditional marriage is a patriarchal institution. Most divorces are initiated by women which highlights how marriage works better for men than women.
    • Radical feminists would point out that the increase in divorce has not necessarily benefited women as 90% of cases result in the children staying with the mother, these single parent families which are mostly female suffer higher levels of poverty and stigma.

The New Right

  • The New Right would argue that there trends are bad for society, as they indicate a decline in morality and a breakdown of social structure and order. The family is supposed to be the fundamental building block of society, and it is difficult to see what will replace it.
    • Without the nuclear family, we risk less effective primary socialisation and more problem children as well as much more anomie for adults.


  • The decline in marriage and increase in divorce reflect the fact that we are part of a consumer society in which individual choice is paramount.
  • They reject the idea that the traditional nuclear family is better for society than other forms, so these trends are not significant.
    • People still value marriage but changes to the social structure make it harder to maintain stable relationships, let alone start them. Greater gender equality means that it is harder to please both partners, and the fact that both partners have to do paid work doesn’t help with the need for communication, required to keep a relationship going.
    • People delay getting married, not only because they want to establish a career first, but also due to the increasing costs of mortgages and weddings. People also delay getting married by cohabiting for a period of time first to ‘test the waters’.

Personal Life Perspective

  • They recognise that the current trends are inevitable in a postmodern society. They argue that people can still have meaningful relationships outside of marriage and therefore do not feel the need to fill a void by choosing a life partner.
    • People lead active social lives and may be close to relatives, friends and pets and therefore don’t feel the need to marry.
    • People may also be put off by the high number of divorces, especially if others in their close circle had gone through it.

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