Today, almost 25% of 18-49 year olds are cohabiting, it has been suggested that this is now an alternative to marriage. However, only a small percentage of women are cohabiting on a permanent basis and the majority of cohabitees are in a stage which proceeds marriage or going through the process of a breakup. For example, more than half of cohabitations last for less than two years and the reason the main reason for breakup is their decision to get married. This is linked to the decision to have children or the fact that the woman is already pregnant.
There are three types of marital breakdown, divorce, which is a legal dissolution of marriage, separation, this is where partners live apart and empty-shell marriages, where the couples remain married but have separate emotional and social lives. Since 1971, marriages have fallen by one-fifth and divorce have doubled, this suggests a collapse in the institution of the family but it could be argued that all of this happened due to unhappy marriages which are likely to end in divorce and the number of empty-shell marriages has declined.
The divorce rate partially reflects legal changes. When the law was liberalised to make divorce easier to obtain, there became an increase in the numbers applying for divorce. This is not a course of divorce but a reflection of unhappy marriages. Goode has argued that this process of liberalisation is part of a wider process of secularisation in western societies, by which he means that it reflects the decline in the institution of religion.
There is now less stigma attached to it as society as accepted it.
Examples of the sudden increase in divorce include the Divorce Reform Act which came into force in 1971 and in 1984 the shortening of the period that a couple had to be married before they could petition for divorce. The divorce rate is an almost exact reflection of the gradual liberalisation of divorce in the twentieth century. In 1969 the law was changed so that irretrievable breakdown of marriage became the only reason for divorce. This meant separation for two years if both partners wanted divorce or separation for five years for five years if only one partner wanted divorce.
It has to be remembered that changes in the law reflects changes in public opinion, so we cannot say that the changes in divorce laws caused a rise in divorce, rather they allowed a rise in divorce. Goode has suggested that historically marriage in most societies was not based upon love, but was supposed to be an economic relationship with limited expectations regarding companionship. Partners did not expect marriage to provide partnership and sexual fulfilments as we do today.
This links to another sociologist, Parsons who claims that the family has lost its wider functions and instead today is relegated to providing the emotional needs that are not available in the broader society. Furthermore, the decline in the extended family and the move to the nuclear family places greater emotional pressures on the fewer family members. The result of all this emotional loading is that the family becomes an emotional pressure cooker, with the head of emotions leading to chances of an explosion. If the family fails to provide all the emotional and social needs then the marriage breaks down.
Changing attitudes of women, three-quarters of divorces are started by wives. This suggests that: the increasing economic independence of women, the increasing beliefs in their own rights and the availability of legal aid for divorce have allowed them the opportunity and desire to divorce if they feel restricted in their marriage. Traditionally, the dominant economic role and the values of patriarchy meant that it was difficult for wives to initiate proceedings. The informal social control and community pressure which helped marriages to remain in place have weakened as a result of increasing urbanisation and the related decline in community.
Marital breakdown occurs with greater frequency amongst certain social groups than others. There are higher divorce rates amongst the working and lower classes. The younger the partners at marriage, the higher the chances of divorce. This reflects possible emotional immaturity, the fact that the woman is more likely to be pregnant at marriage or their personal development may take place at different speeds and in different directions. However, the increase in cohabitation and the availability of terminations and contraception’s have decreased the numbers of people marrying young or when the partner is pregnant with an un-planned pregnancy.
More than 90% of people still marry today. Although divorce rates are high, remarriages are high too, suggesting that people may reject their partners but they are not rejecting the institution of marriage. However, cohabitation is increasing rapidly and it is now normal to cohabit before marriage. Divorce has increased rapidly since the 1960s and the first marriages have declined. The continuing popularity of marriage is reflected in the fact that those who divorce are still likely to remarry. The increase in divorce reflects changing attitudes and expectations from marriage and the fact that divorce is now easier to obtain.