There cannot be a better known quote about heteronormative relationships between men and women in Britain than Jane Austen’s infamous opening to Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." When Austen’s novel was published in 1813, the idea of men, let alone women, marrying for love – particularly among Britain’s upper classes – was still novel.
Two centuries later, we’ve lived through an industrial revolution, two world wars, a sexual revolution and the introduction of contraception, all of which have completely reframed women’s roles in the private sphere of the home and the public world of work. If, like me, you grew up in the '90s after all of this had taken place, it was easy to take for granted the notion that getting married ought to be a secondary consideration to getting an education or pursuing a career because of the groundwork laid by so many feminist activists before our generation came along. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that before the 1964 Married Women’s Property Act, on marrying a man, a woman was not the legal owner of any money she earned in her own right.
Despite advances in women’s rights within marriage, the number of marriages has been in steady decline in recent years. After the Second World War, as you might expect, there was a surge in marriage. The number taking place continued to increase between 1945 and 1972 but then began to fall until, in 2009, just 232,000 couples married.
Earlier this year, as the scale of the coronavirus pandemic really set in, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its latest data which showed that marriage rates for opposite-sex couples are now at the lowest level ever recorded. It also revealed that in 2017, the average age at marriage of opposite-sex couples was 38.0 years for men and 35.7 years for women, figures which have slowly been rising in recent years.
Of the data, Kanak Ghosh from the ONS confirmed that "this continues a gradual long-term decline seen since the early 1970s, with numbers falling by a third over the past 40 years," and added it’s also worth noting that "the popularity of religious ceremonies also fell to historic lows for the second year running, with fewer than one in four couples choosing to get married through a religious ceremony."
In 2017 the average age at marriage of opposite-sex couples was 38.0 years for men and 35.7 years for women.
Office for national statistics
What’s particularly interesting is that in LGBTQ+ relationships – groups who have previously been excluded from the institution of marriage – there has actually been an increase in the number of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships. So what’s going on? Why does marriage seem to be falling out of favour among straight couples?
There are many theories about this, some of which carry more credibility than others. Could it be because younger generations today are all Peter Pans, stuck in a state of perma adolescence, spending all their disposable income on avocados and refusing to grow up? Probably not. More plausibly, could it be that there is less stigma surrounding cohabitation, which means there is less pressure to get married? ONS data also shows that cohabiting opposite-sex couples are now the fastest-growing family type.
Another huge factor could be that many (but not all) women today are more financially independent than previous generations and therefore have less reason to hitch their wagon to a partner before they’re sure and ready. Last year, there were more women recorded in work than ever before. Now, of course, women have always worked. They just haven’t always been paid properly. Indeed, some still aren’t (see unpaid care work). Nonetheless, ONS data shows that the UK employment rate for women has been steadily increasing for almost a decade, jumping from around 65% in 2010 to 71% in 2019. And an often-overlooked fact is that, financially speaking, young straight women are no longer as dependent on men. While we still have a pernicious gender pay gap across the board in Britain, in recent years, women in their 20s who are in full-time work have actually been out-earning their male counterparts, according to the Annual Survey for Hours and Earnings. That’s right, younger generations of women seem to be reversing the gender pay gap and only experience inequity when it comes to how much they earn later in life, perhaps after having children and entering into part-time work.
All of this could paint a bleak picture of the institution of marriage in this country which, however you slice it, for white British women in particular is rooted in Anglo-Christian and patriarchal norms. Or, as with so many aspects of our lives during the time of coronavirus, it could provide pause, an opportunity for us to reassess the purpose of the union between a straight man and woman in an era when the sort of relationships we all have and want has changed dramatically.
If we know anything about women from studying history it's that they – even those women who lived in periods when they had next to no rights in law – have always found creative ways of working around legal structures and customary practices.
professor helen berry
Professor Helen Berry is a historian who specialises in the history of gender and sexuality and particularly in the shifting definitions of marriage over time. She has also written at length about the queer history of marriage in her book The Castrato And His Wife. She thinks there are positives to be taken from these shifting trends.
Helen notes that we forget that "our ideas about marriage are actually remarkably recent". For instance, she explains, "needing a licence, to get married in a church or registry office are all relatively modern structures. And the further back in time we go, the more different the customs are both in the UK, the US and for cultures around the world, of course, there are entirely different processes and customs."
What we think of today as "normal" when it comes to the age at which people get married and the reasons as to why they might do so have actually varied enormously throughout history. Indeed, if the data is anything to go by, for women today, marrying later is the new normal.
"The historical consistency however," Helen adds, "is that, generally, the role of women in marriage has been subordinate. Until very recently, it was the main way of setting up a family unit socially, of conferring the legitimacy of children and, legally, the way of transferring property. Indeed, if you speak to the grandparents of millennials, they will recall the time when being born out of wedlock was a real disgrace so I don’t think we should underplay the role of that, either. Until very recently sex was something that was supposed to happen within marriage, it was straight and it was meant to enable procreation of legitimate children."
These social mores have changed so it makes complete sense that our relationship with marriage has changed, too. Helen thinks that the rise of marriage equality in recent years, which has enabled LGBTQ+ couples to marry should they wish to, has also had an effect. "It has contributed to a reevaluation of what the essence of marriage is – now it is a contractual arrangement between equal partners where, historically, it was seen as a religious institution which was a covenant. It didn’t necessarily involve equality between partners at all."
Unlike the world Jane Austen inhabited, the idea of marrying for love when you’re good and ready is generally accepted now. However, Helen cautions that, while we are seeing more progressive attitudes, the backlash Prince Harry faced when he decided to marry Meghan Markle suggests that some parts of our society "still believe you should marry for dynastic reasons to someone who has a similar background, amount of wealth and comes from the same race and class as you." And, of course, we know that there are still forced marriages and that pervasive stigmas about who it is and isn't acceptable to marry still exist beyond the royal family for certain races and religions.
Marriage, traditionally, is an economic arrangement. It’s only in our very recent history that romance has come into the equation. What’s interesting is that, while married women have more protections than ever, those who don’t marry but cohabit – who we know make up a growing proportion of the population – find themselves with fewer financial protections should things go wrong, because couples who live together in Britain but are not married are not protected by common law. The legislation, it seems, hasn’t kept up with our preferences.
If fewer straight couples are marrying and, when they are, doing it later, one thing is for sure: we have more time to think about what we want from marriage. After the Second World War, one interpretation of the sudden surge in marriages is that people had assessed their lives, thought a lot about having a partner and, indeed, the idea of being in love, having lived through such a cataclysmic global event.
Helen thinks that now is a great time to look backwards as well as forwards. "We can ask big questions about the meaning of life and the meaning of relationships and intimacy," she says hopefully. "If we know anything about women from studying history it’s that they – even those women who lived in periods when they had next to no rights in law – have always found creative ways of working around legal structures and customary practices." As we continue to navigate our way through a global pandemic, there’s no reason why that should be any different. If financially stable straight women don’t need marriage, we ought to ask what we want from it. And if we don't want it at all, then perhaps we need to ask why we aren't so well protected if we choose to live another way.