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Marriage as a Declining Instituation

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It is widely recognised that marriage is no longer held in the same esteem it once was with statistics indicating a decrease in the number of marriages taking place. According to the Office of National Statistics marriage rates in England and Wales are the lowest since records began, with the number of weddings in 2007 down by a quarter compared with 1991. In Scotland there were 3.2% fewer marriages in 2008 compared to 2007 and in Northern Ireland there were 2% less marriages during the same two periods respectively. Also, couples are marrying later, with the average groom now almost 37 years old and the bride nearly 34. (Guardian online February 2009) It is often said that marriage is becoming an outdated or dying institution with events such as the current economic climate, divorce, changing family structures, the sexual revolution, and a decline in religious beliefs being said to be among the causes. Taking into account current trends, this essay will critically discuss the points outlined above to explain some of the reasons people choose to marry or not; and reach a conclusion on whether marriage is in fact becoming a declining institution.

Marriage has been defined as 'a social contract between two individuals that unites their lives legally, economically and emotionally'. Often referred to as 'an institution', interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual are acknowledged depending on the culture concerned, and the 'union' between the two individuals getting married is often formalised with a wedding ceremony. ( Some sociologists argue that marriage is highly valued in society, partly due to the image the media present of marriage based on romance and happiness but there are many reasons why people marry. Traditionally the legal establishment of families, financial security, love and a public declaration of commitment have been important to those who enter into marriage. Although marriage can take many forms the traditional view of marriage in the UK and elsewhere is one of monogamy between couples of the opposite sex. However, since 2005 same sex couples have been able to marry in the UK, contributing to the number of marriages taking place, while changing the view that marriage is only for heterosexual couples.

According to Ermisch and Francesconi (1998) we are observing a postponement of marriage - not a large scale rejection of it, and that cohabitation contributes to its postponement, although partnership overall is also being postponed. Devenney from One Plus One, an organisation investigating the causes of relationship breakdowns, predicted marriage figures would drop further next year because of the recession. She said: "With the current economic uncertainty many people are unlikely to want to commit to the huge outlay that is often involved with planning a big wedding. Marriage rates go up when the economy is strong so we may just see people choosing to wait till things are less uncertain." The unstable job market and difficulties young couples experience trying to get a foot on the property ladder as reported by the media are also likely deterrents. For others the experience of marriage breakdowns within families may influence their decision whether to marry or not. A spokeswoman for Marriage Care, which helps prepare people for marriage and offers counselling when they experience difficulties, said: "There are many reasons for the figures, but I think a lot of people have experienced parental break-ups and the pain involved, and that puts some people off, despite all the known positives of marriage, such as better health and children doing better with married parents." (Guardian online February 2009)

While figures indicate a decrease in the marriage rate, divorce is on the increase, although many divorcees remarry. The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 involved a major change in the grounds for divorce. The Act came into force in January 1971 and was followed by a rapid rise in divorce rates. A change in the law in 1985 called The Matrimonial Family Proceedings Act meant that couples only need be married for one year before they could petition for divorce. Previously couples had to be married for three years, so this time reduction, made it much easier to divorce. Also the grounds for divorce had been widened, the procedure had been simplified and it was no longer an expensive procedure. Ronald Fletcher 1966 argues that a higher divorce rate reflects a higher value placed on marriage. In terms of this argument, the fact that a large proportion of divorcees remarry suggests that they are not rejecting marriage but simply expecting more from the relationship, a claim made by functionalists such as Ronald Fletcher and Talcott Parsons. Remarriages rose by about a third between 1971 and 1972, following the introduction of the Divorce Reform Act 1969 in England and Wales, and then levelled off. Provisional figures for 2008, show that 85,860 marriages were remarriages for one or both parties, accounting for 37 per cent of all marriages. In 1998, 110,764 marriages were remarriages for one or both parties accounting for 41 per cent of all marriages. (ONS 2008) These statistics may show that in fact marriage may not be a declining institution that in fact many people are choosing to do it again if their first marriage fails.

Divorce has now become much more socially acceptable. In the past couples may have stayed together in an empty shell marriage because of the shame and stigma that divorce had previously had attached to it. Until the sexual revolution in the 1960s women did not have equality. The husband was seen as the bread winner and the wife was expected to stay at home with the children and carry out all the domestic duties. In previous years the husband and wife did not mix socially. The wife had no control over the household income and was expected to be submissive to her husband. Women were often trapped in unhappy marriages because they could not support themselves and their children without their



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