Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The changing face of marriage

I've just been watching a fascinating documentary on BBC iPlayer about the history of British marriages in the last fifty years. It shows how much marriage has changed. Kirsty Young interviewed lots of couples and marriage guidance counsellors to explore the changing concept of marriage: from an institution to a relationship.

One significant factor was the availability of divorce, which meant that people actually had to work at it rather than taking it for granted, and that they could escape miserable and failed marriages. But until the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, a divorce was still quite difficult to obtain; one or other party had to be at fault. After that, separation could be grounds for divorce. By seeing marriage as a terminable arrangement, this completely changed the way people viewed marriage: it means that the quality of marriage matters, and it is socially acceptable to end one.

The Second World War had a huge impact; there were 30,000 divorces in 1946 (more than three times the pre-war numbers) because people's expectations of marriage had changed, and many people had had affairs while they or their partners were away, or both parties had simply changed in the intervening years since they had last seen each other.

Then there was the advent of marriage guidance (the National Marriage Guidance Council was formed in 1946). The NMGC promoted the concept of companionate marriage — the idea that the partners are equal and provide companionship for each other.

Another significant change was women going out to work. In the early 50s, only one in five women worked. This changed fairly rapidly in subsequent decades. At about 25 minutes into the documentary, Kirsty Young takes a pot-shot at that idiot John Bowlby, who placed having a mother in full-time employment on the same level as war and famine in the scale of calamities that might befall a child.

The increasing availability of contraception also had an effect, together with increased expectations of sexual fulfilment. Until the "sexual revolution", people often had little or no sexual experience when they got married, so had no basis for comparison to know if their partner was any good in the sack. Reliable contraception allowed them to gain pre-marital sexual experiences; and also meant that they could choose whether or not to have children. And increased availability of knowledge about sex (orgasms and so on) meant that expectations were raised, and extra-marital affairs became more common. Prior to that, they were pretty clueless about sex; a NMGC survey in the early 50s found that only one in three couples had a fulfilling sex life. A 1958 NMGC booklet, Sex in Marriage, pointed out that some couples, once they get closer, might like to try having sex with no clothes on; and pointed out that some women might need more than orgasm before they were satisfied. (Hurrah - multiple orgasms!) People were also clueless about conception and contraception - at the beginning of the 1960s, one in five women were already pregnant when they got married. Many others died of botched abortions.

Feminism also had an impact, encouraging women to expect economic, intellectual and sexual freedom, and legal and social equality. Men started to help with the housework, or with pushing the pram or holding the baby in the late 1950s. (The next programme in the series deals with feminism and sexual liberation.)

Education (including sex education) improved massively, making people better informed about life and about the choices available to them.

All of these factors mean that marriage at the end of the twentieth century was a completely different concept than it was at the beginning of the century. So, if you are one of those people who thinks that same-sex or polygamous marriage would change the concept of marriage beyond all recognition, you are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.


  1. It should also not be assumed that marriage in 1900 was something that had stayed unchanged since marriage was invented. Comparing changes in the 100 years before then would probably be very interesting as the industrial revolution must have had huge effects on family lifestyles. The 100 years before that would probably have had big changes I know less about, and the 100 years before that...

  2. Yes, very good point. For instance, church weddings weren't introduced until the 14th century - before that you either had a handfasting, or a wedding in a private home, or a wedding in the church porch (not inside the church).

  3. Another factor that the documentary forgot to mention has to be the advent of labour-saving technology, such as the vacuum-cleaner and the washing-machine, which must have given housewives a lot of extra free time, which they could use for leisure pursuits or going out to work.

  4. I've just realised that the stereotypical wedding photo is of everyone in a church porch, is that likely to be why?

    Better education also makes a difference because if all children have to go to school from an early age there is no childcare benefit of having their mother at home twiddling her thumbs all day while the children are in the care of teachers.

  5. Thanks - fascinating to see such recent social changes documented. Another big change is that marriage in this country used to confer huge rights to a husband, over his wife and her property. When did the law change on this, I wonder?

  6. In 1870, with the Married Women's Property Act, which certainly did make a huge difference to the concept of marriage.