What does the institution of marriage actually mean today? Since the early 1970s the number of men and women choosing to tie the knot has been in steady decline, whilst those choosing to cohabit has increased.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), cohabiting couple families now represent the fastest growing family type, totalling 3.2million in 2015. We no longer live in a society where marriage is a prerequisite for young people on the path to adulthood and social and financial security, calling into question the overall necessity of marriage.

Nowadays, the traditional and religious connotations of marriage are struggling to find their place in the mindset of modern-day couples.


Krystina Garnett is 32 and lives with her partner Steven, 33, in Bramhall. They have been together for ten years and are expecting their first child in the next few months. Though marriage would seem like a natural step, the couple have questioned the relevance of the convention, declaring it to be ‘archaic’ and ‘irrelevant’ for modern couples. Krystina, who works in advertising said: “It used to have more significance to me as something that adds stability to the family dynamic, but more recently I have questioned its significance and whether it is actually necessary.

“It is so easy to get divorced that actually it offers no stability and is rather irrelevant.”

Steven works as a copywriter and said marriage does not prove your commitment to someone: “More people are realising that it is not necessary and co-owning a house and having children are actually more of a commitment than marrying someone.”

Both agreed that building a career and saving money to buy a house were more of a priority than declaring ‘I do’: “People are not in a rush to settle down these days, they want to focus on the career that they have studied hard for, they want to travel and experience life.

“Most people would prefer to invest £25,000 to get on the housing ladder than on a wedding, which is sensible,” Krystina added.

Harry Benson is director of research at Marriage Foundation, a charity set up in 2014 to promote the positive long-term benefits marriage. Despite the decline in religious ceremonies, Mr Benson says it is paramount couples see the benefits of choosing to make a formal commitment to each other, whether through a religious or civil marriage: “As a society we have become more sceptical, more secular, anywhere between five and ten percent of the population now attend some form of recognised church regularly.

“It’s not surprising that most weddings are therefore secular ceremonies and that’s fine, what matters is the outcome.”

He added: “Whether people marry in church or civil premises the key thing is that people make a solid commitment to one another.”

According to research carried out by Marriage Foundation, cohabiting parents now account for 19 percent of all couples with dependent children but also represent half of all family breakdowns.

Mr Benson stressed the disparity between men and women’s views on marriage were also reasons for increased cohabitation: “We did a survey a couple of years ago and one of the questions we asked was if you’re not married what are the reasons for not being married and cohabiting.

“The biggest reason for men was the cost of the wedding and for women it was because he hadn’t asked.”

The disparity between weddings of the 1950s and the cult of celebrity-style weddings today means couples feel even greater pressure to create a celebration akin to weddings they see glamorised on social media. “One standout group who fail miserably are celebrities, we have been led up the garden path by celebs,” claims Mr Benson, who found that divorce rates among celebrities were twice as high as the rest of the population. According to a survey carried out by The Wedding Site, the cost of weddings has increased by 3000 percent since the 1950s.

Wilma McLean, 77, and husband John, 80, (pictured) celebrated their diamond-wedding anniversary this year. They married in 1957 after Wilma unexpectedly fell pregnant at 17. She said: “People did get married young then.

“We didn’t have a big wedding, there were just four of us at the ceremony and afterwards we went for a meal and then to the theatre.”

She added: “Relationships are more stable when people are married, especially if they have children.”

John was 20 when he married Wilma and worked as an engineer. He believes marriage enables couples to plan ahead and make a solid commitment to one another, but he also stressed that for a marriage to last it is important for the man and woman to have independent hobbies: “The man and wife have got to do their own thing sometimes and have their own interests, if anything happens that can help them through the hard times.”

Wilma and John Mclean
Wilma and John Mclean on their wedding day in 1957

Prior to the 1994 Marriage Act couples were only permitted to marry in a church or register offices. The amendment opened up the opportunity for couples to publicly declare their commitment to each other in approved venues across the country including football stadiums, museums and even aquariums.

According to the ONS, 88 percent of all civil marriages between opposite sex couples took place in approved premises in 2014; those not held in approved premises took place in a register office. The cultural shift in how modern day couples interpret the institution of marriage has also given rise to the number of humanist ceremonies conducted in the UK. Though not yet legally recognised in England and Wales, humanist ceremonies are becoming increasingly popular amongst non-religious couples who want something more personalised.

In a humanist ceremony, couples are free to choose the location of their wedding with no set script on what words need to be exchanged or how long the ceremony lasts. Natasha Gray is an accredited humanist wedding celebrant with Humanists UK, a national organisation campaigning for the ethical and equal rights of humanists. Reflecting on the recent growth of humanist ceremonies, she said: “I think people want something personalised and genuine, couples are giving the kind of ceremony they wish to have a lot of thought.

“Humanist ceremonies by their very nature are very open-minded and can be wherever, whatever and however people want them.”

Despite the deviation from conventional customs of religious ceremonies, Ms Gray said that traditional elements still play an important part in many of the ceremonies she conducts: “People want to recognise those elements of the traditional wedding.

“Most wish to do the ring exchange and there’s an increasing popularity with hand-fasting which is a Celtic tradition.”

Humanists UK says that since 2005, when humanist weddings were first legally recognised in Scotland, the number of ceremonies conducted has helped to reverse the overall decline of marriages taking place in Scotland. Ms Gray added: “Since they were given legal recognition in Scotland, humanists have conducted 50,000 ceremonies, if other beliefs can be given recognition for their marriage, why not humanists.”


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