The future of marriage post-covid

Marriage rates will more than rebound after lockdown ends as couple reevaluate their lives. But will this be the start of a new uptrend?

Marriage rates will more than rebound after lockdown ends as couple reevaluate their lives. But will this be the start of a new uptrend?

Marriage rates in the UK are currently at close to zero.

When the government banned weddings as part of the lockdown measures, they may have meant just to ban gatherings. But, even if unintentionally, they also banned the legal ceremonies that require a minimum of just five people – a celebrant, the couple and two witnesses.

With registrars and churches closing, it has proven impossible for the vast majority of engaged couples to get married – not least the Prime Minister and his fiancée. Only the most tenacious of NHS staff working in covid wards have been able to marry under special licence. I know of at least two such weddings since lockdown.

Of course weddings and marriage rates will rebound massively next year as frustrated couples rebook for a time when we are free to congregate in groups once more.

But what after that?

Having been deprived of the opportunity for several months, will Britain’s couples shun marriage as something that they can live without? Or will couples see the doors reopen and rush to rediscover something they thought they’d lost?

Without doubt, the trend in marriage has been downwards for many years. But trends can and do change direction. Who’d have thought that marriages would reach their all-time peak at the end of the swinging 1960s, a period famous for the sexual revolution but also a time when marriage rates soared? Many might assume that the downtrend began with the Victorians.

Leaving aside this paradox, it’s easy to understand why the tide turned from 1970 onwards. For it was only then that ‘the pill’ became widely available. Prior to 1970, only a tiny minority of couples slept together – let alone lived together – without getting married.

Sleeping together meant sex, which meant pregnancy. So families and society insisted couples made an explicit commitment to the future before sex happened. For almost all couples, that meant marriage.

From the early 1800s when national records began until the 1960s, fewer than one in twenty births were to unmarried parents. Undoubtedly some of these were ‘shotgun weddings’.

Birth control broke the link between sex, children, commitment and marriage. Women were liberated from the risk of childbirth. Cohabiting, with or without a clear plan for the future, became a reality.

Perhaps the surprise today is that so many people do still get married, given that there is no need to marry and no social stigma attached.

It is still the case that half of all parents are married when their child is born and another quarter will marry at some stage later. Marriage is at the very least surviving. And among the better off, it’s thriving.

Three quarters of higher earners are married before they have children and up to nine out of ten are married by the time their children are aged five. Among the lower income groups, just one quarter to one third of parents are married.

So the really important trend here is the decline in marriage among the lower and middle income groups. Will the better off continue marry in their droves? Will the rest fall back in love with marriage or reject it altogether?

It’s certainly possible that the trend could reverse. If the world is going to change post-covid, one of the ways it might do so is by looking for security closer to home, whether that’s a domestic build-up of key industries and supplies, greater reliance on domestic food production, or greater reliance on the family unit at home. That could mean greater demand for marriage.

Wedding gatherings will always remain attractive because they affirm the risky choice that couples make to commit to one person for life. They also bring families and support systems together. But the legal aspect of marriage provides rights and responsibilities that recognize the different roles needed in bringing up children, however couples choose to assign these.

Whether this boosts the appeal of marriage or not, I suspect it will boost demands for similar legal rights to accrue to cohabiting couples – a move that I have long argued against because it undermines the huge benefit of a clear act of commitment by men and clear signal of commitment to women – and greater pressure to move the state’s role to one of registering marriages rather than regulating the wedding ceremony – a move I have long argued for, in line with other European countries.

Within a few weeks, we will have new data that will bring a much clearer understanding of how couples have negotiated lockdown.

My suspicion is that married couples will have fared a great deal better than cohabiting couples because of the greater clarity of commitment. Lockdown has been like building an extra wall around your household. That wall will feel fine to those who are clear that they want to be there but will feel like a trap to those who are in any way unsure about their relationship.

Ironically for those in the early stages of relationship, the end of lockdown springs a trapdoor that can be hard to find in more normal times. It provides an opportunity to walk free if things are not working out. This is the reason I have proposed a Two Year Rule in my book ‘Commit or Quit’. It gives couples an early exit route when the temptation otherwise is to drift.

Will marriage rates rise, other than merely rebound?

In the short term, I expect both marriage and divorce rates will rise. This is what happened in the years immediately following Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina in the US in 1989. Covid may not be as directly life threatening as a hurricane. But I expect the perception of fear and uncertainty will cause many couples to reevalute their lives and need for domestic clarity and security.

Although sceptics will presume the world will simply revert to its old norms post-covid, I suspect many people will be reviewing the way they work and consume and live. They will want security and reliability in all aspects of life. in that case, this may be the turning point where the clarity of commitment and legal protections of marriage will make it the relationship of choice once more.