The attitude to marriage has changed considerably over the past few decades. There have been changes in whether they marry at all, the age at which people marry and the roles played by men and women. Attitudes to gay couples have also seen a change. Marriage is a complex topic. Attitudes held by society at a particular time have been influenced by factors including religion, the economy, availability of contraception, abortion laws, women’s liberation and politics.
Back in the fifties it was generally accepted a woman’s role was to marry and have children. Most people married in their early 20s. It was seen as very important that women marry and those who did not were often considered a failure. Having a baby 'out of wedlock' was disapproved of and unmarried mothers were often talked into giving their baby up for adoption.
Living together before marriage was rare and not approved of. Women were often required (by legislation) to resign from their job once married. For example, the Public Service Act of 1902 which affected some required a woman to resign when she married. The expectation was her husband would now provide for her financially and she would soon start having children.
Where it was possible for a woman to reapply for her job once married, a woman would start again at the lowest level of salary. Her employment status might be ‘temporary’. In 1966 the law changed and a married woman in the public service could have permanent status. (Usually women, whatever their marital status, received about three quarters the salary of a man doing the same work until the 1970s when equal pay was introduced.)
A woman’s financial dependence on her husband, the tendency for larger families and society’s attitudes worked to discourage a woman from leaving a marriage, even if she was suffering abuse.
In 1971 more than ¾ of the women surveyed considered their role as a mother more important than their career. By 1991 this had dropped to ¼. With the passing of time an increased number of women, both single and married, are in the workforce.
Many women combine motherhood and employment these days. It is no longer generally considered to be the man’s role to be the sole financial provider. There have also been changes in government benefits available to those in need.
Divorce rates have increased since the 1950s but in more recent times have dropped. Today divorce is less likely than 30 years ago. However, the statistics do not show the likelihood of couples who have been living together to separate. Also the likelihood of divorce is different according to the age of a couple. There are many factors influencing the statistics of divorce.
Whereas it was once expected the groom would be older than his bride that is changing to some degree. By 1974 in 11% of first marriages the bride was older than the groom. In 1995 the statistic was in 20% of first marriages the bride was older. The idea behind the groom being older was that he would be in a better financial position to support a wife and family.
These days, as a generalisation, couples are choosing to marry at a later age, if at all. Since the 1970s more couples have been choosing to ‘live together’ either before they marry or instead of ‘tying the knot’. One of the many reasons for this is the declining influence of religion in society as a whole. De facto couples generally have the same legal rights and benefits of married couples. While many people still do not approve of 'living together', the practice has become more accepted.
Whilst there was a noticeable steep decline in the popularity of marriage in the late 1990s, since 2001 there has been a steady increase. These days some people consider themselves to have a ‘partner’ but they may live in separate houses. This did not occur back in the fifties or sixties but is an increasing trend.
The attitude to marriage has changed in many aspects. Some people yearn for ‘the good old days’ where roles were clearly defined. Others shudder at the thought of a return to a time when a woman’s role was to get married and her status depended on her husband’s job and income. Many enjoy having more lifestyle choices, greater freedom, independence and being a person in their own right. I wonder how attitudes to marriage will change in the next few decades.