Only a month to go and the whole world will be transfixed by the wedding of the century (or so the popular press will try to persuade us). William will get hitched to Kate in Westminster Abbey. Not to be outdone, his cousin, Zara Phillips, will have her own royal wedding to the England rugby captain, Mike Tindall, in July. And to just to remind us that it’s not only royals who get spliced, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, announced this week that he and his long term partner and mother of his two children, Justine Thornton, are getting married in May. Is marriage coming back into fashion?

Well, not if the figures are anything to go by. In 2009 the number of marriages in England and Wales was the lowest since 1862: only 231,490 couples bothered to tie the knot. For the UK as a whole it’s less than half the all-time high of 533,866 couples who got married in 1940. Midway between the two dates, the numbers were still much nearer the higher end – 480,285 in 1972. So it’s in recent years that the attractiveness of marriage has been falling so fast.

It’s the declining attractiveness of marriage to women that’s most striking. Of women born in 1931 only 6% were not married by the time they reached the age of forty. But by 2009 the number of unmarried women turning forty in that year was 27%.

For those who approve of marriage, the good news is that divorce is declining too - and not just because there are fewer married people getting divorced. In 2009, the proportion of people divorcing, at 10.5 per thousand of married people, was the lowest it had been since 1977. Perhaps the reason for this is that the average age of marriage has been rising: in 2009 the average age of marriage for men was 32.1 years and 30 for women. The age group with the highest number of divorces were those in their late twenties.

So the picture is of fewer people getting married but fewer getting divorced.

The explanation for this changing pattern of social behaviour is obvious. Living together is much more socially acceptable than it was before. And women are economically so much more independent than they used to be that they have less financial incentive to tie themselves legally to a man. So much are both these factors the case, that some have wondered why Ed Miliband and his partner should be bothering to go through the old ritual. Perhaps they just want to.

For some social commentators, including not a few politicians, the decline of marriage is a terrible thing, breeding all sorts of social problems. They tend to cite figures showing that the children of married people do very much better in many different respects than children not brought up within marriages. What’s not clear, though, is what causes what. It could be that the stability of marriage is indeed the cause of the advantages which such commentators claim marriage brings. But it could be simply that the sort of people who get married tend to be the sort of people who will give their children the best start in life anyway and that the institutional fact of their being married is neither here nor there.

What is more clear is why so many people tend to shun marriage. For some it’s not just that the acceptability of living together means they don’t have to bother. In addition, some women (and indeed some men) regard marriage as a patriarchal institution that is insulting to women. All the stuff about being ‘given away’ by one man to another is just too much. Others object to the religious implications of marriage. Indeed there is a campaign among some atheist heterosexuals to be allowed the same right to contract civil partnerships, rather than marriages, that same-sex couples now enjoy.

Some gays, however, are campaigning for the opposite. Many Christian lesbians and gay men are deeply affronted that their churches do not allow gay marriage. But, in addition, some non-Christian gays regard it as discriminatory that the state offers them only civil partnerships rather than registry office marriages, such as straight couples can choose to commit to. The fact that the legal rights of the two are barely distinguishable from each other seems to them irrelevant: they want the status of marriage.

At a time when marriage among heterosexuals seems to have a declining attraction, this may seem a touch odd, a squabble over a label. But the idea that marriage should have become merely a tag is something that would lead many to think it has lost its meaning anyway. Is that where we’ve got to?

What’s your view?

  • How important is marriage to you?
  • Do you think there’s any difference between a couple being married and a couple living together in a long-term relationship?
  • Would it have mattered to you if Prince William and Kate Middleton had said they didn’t really believe in marriage and were just going to live together and have kids like so many other couples of their age do?
  • Do you think children brought up in marriage have a better start than those who don’t, and, if so, why?
  • Would you want your own children to get married or would you be quite happy for them to settle down with someone in a partnership?
  • What do you make of the demand by some straight couples to be allowed civil partnerships rather than marriages?
  • And should gays be allowed to marry, both in church and in state ceremonies?
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