Changing Patterns in Family Life

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • the recent changes in British family life relating to marriage, cohabitation and marital breakdown
  • the arguments for and against the New Right view that the nuclear family is in decline as a result of these changes


Some members of the New Right subscribe to the view that marriage, and therefore nuclear family life, is under attack and in decline. The New Right approach can be seen as a more recent re-working of the earlier functionalist approach to the family.The New Right argue that marriage is becoming less popular, as shown by the fact that marriage rates have declined in Britain. In 2005, only 244 710 couples got married, compared with 480 000 in 1972. Moreover, the male marriage rate declined from 36.3% in 1994 to 27.8% in 2004, whilst the female rate declined from 30.6% to 24.6%.

However, the majority of people in Britain marry. Surveys indicate that most people still see marriage as a desirable objective in their lives. The number of re-marriages (i.e. in which one or both partners have been divorced) has increased as a percentage of all marriages from 15% in 1971 to 40% in 2006. These people are committed to the institution of marriage, despite their previous negative experience(s) of it.

Chester (1985) argues that society is not witnessing a mass rejection of marriage, instead, he suggests, people are delaying marriage. In other words, people are marrying later in life, probably after a period of cohabitation, for economic reasons. In 2005, seven in ten families were still headed by a married couple.


Cohabitation is seen by the New Right as threatening the sanctity of marriage. It is suggested that this type of arrangement is too casual and does not involve the same sort of commitment and loyalty that marriage does. Moreover, New Right thinkers believe that children born outside of marriage are a sign of moral decline. In 2007 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in Britain. Around 2.2 million families are cohabiting couples, with or without children. About 30% of births are now to cohabiting rather than married couples.


However, studies by sociologists such as Burgoyne (1982) suggest that in most cases cohabitation is a temporary phase. Most of those who cohabit eventually marry. Social attitudes tend to support marriage rather than cohabitation. Reasons for cohabitation may be pragmatic. The cost of marriage is high which may deter people, especially in areas hardest hit by unemployment.


Moreover, about three-quarters of births outside marriage are registered by both parents. This indicates that these births are occurring within stable relationships. Fletcher (1988) argues that cohabitation and births outside marriage conceal what are in fact rather conventional nuclear families based on stable relationships – even though they are not legitimised by marriage.


Cohabitation is not exclusive to heterosexual couples. Since the 1970s society has seen the emergence of lesbian and gay cohabitation, following the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Plummer (1995) notes that between 40% and 60% of gay men are cohabiting in relationships of over one year duration.

Bear in mind that a same sex couple can now register as civil partners and thereby have their relationship legally recognised. You will find more information on civil partnerships here.

Marital breakdown

Marital breakdown is viewed by the New Right as a profound social problem with serious costs to society and individuals. There are three types of marital breakdown.

  • Divorce refers to the legal termination of a marriage. This option is not always available in some societies.
  • Separation refers to the physical separation of the spouses in that they are not living under the same roof.
  • Empty shell marriage refers to a husband and wife who live together, and remain legally married, but who experience no intimate or emotional relationship, e.g. remaining together for the ‘sake of the children’. It is difficult to measure how many marriages are in this state.


There has been a steady rise in the divorce rate in Britain throughout the twentieth century. In 1961, two married couples per 1000 were divorced in England and Wales. By 1991, this had risen to 13. Chandler (1993) argues that if present trends continue, about 40% of current marriages will end in divorce. Explanations for the increasing divorce rate are as follows.

  • Changes in legislation – changes in divorce law have generally made it easier and cheaper to get divorced. Before 1857, divorce was rare because it was expensive and required a private Act of Parliament. Four pieces of legislation can be identified as profoundly influencing the divorce statistics.

– The Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) made divorce easier although it was still not affordable for most social groups. It also introduced the concept of ‘marital crime’, i.e. divorce was granted if offences such as cruelty or desertion were proved. Be aware of any proposed changes to the divorce laws.

– The Legal Aid and Advice Act (1949) gave financial assistance to the less well-off to help with divorce costs.

– The Divorce Reform Act (1969) became law in 1971. This has been the most profound change. Marital partners now only have to demonstrate ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ by separating for two years. ‘Quickie’ divorces could still be obtained by proving marital offences. A major rise in divorce followed the implementation of this act.

– The Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act (1984) reduced the period when couples could start to petition for divorce from three years to one year.


These changes in legislation resulted in a dramatic rise in the divorce rate especially in 1971 and in 1984–5. However, legislation is not the sole cause of higher divorce rates. Legal changes reflect changing attitudes in society.

  • Fletcher sees higher divorce rates as evidence that marriage is increasingly valued. Couples are no longer prepared to put up with empty shell marriages. They want partners who can offer friendship, emotional fulfilment and sexual compatibility.
  • In the 1960s most divorce petitions were initiated by men. However, in the 1990s 75% of divorce petitions were taken out by women. Thornes and Collard’s (1979) survey of married couples discovered that women expect more from marriage than men and consequently tend to be less satisfied with their marriages.
  • An important influence on women’s attitudes has probably been the improvement in women’s employment opportunities. In 1994 58% of the workforce was female. Women no longer have to stay unhappily married because they are not financially dependent upon their husband. However, the influence of this factor should not be exaggerated. Women’s average earnings are still only 75% of men’s. Women’s economic independence is restricted because they are often employed in part-time and low-paid work.
  • Hart (1976) argues that many women experience a ‘dual burden’. They work, but are still primarily responsible for the bulk of housework and child-care. Failure by men to re-distribute power in the home may lead to divorce.
  • There has been a general liberalisation of attitudes in society. Divorce no longer carries stigma. Some sociologists such as Wilson (1988) see such change in social attitudes as due to secularisation, i.e. a general decline in religious practices and thinking. Even members of the Royal Family have experienced divorce.
  • Marriage, despite its popularity, receives little support from the State. Little public money is spent keeping marriages together, despite the emotional and economic costs of divorce.


Current trends indicate that four out of ten contemporary marriages will eventually end in divorce. Monogamy, i.e. one partner for life, may eventually be replaced by serial monogamy, i.e. people may have a series of relationships which result in cohabitation and/or marriage. However, most people spend their lives in a family environment and place a high value on it. Abbott and Wallace (1990) argue that the statistics indicate family stability, e.g. six out of ten couples who got married in the 1990s will stay together until one of them dies.

Post-modernist views on divorce

The post-modernist approach provides an alternative interpretation of divorce.

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) argue that rising divorce rates are the product of a rapidly changing world in which the traditional rules with regard to love, romance and relationships no longer apply. In particular, they point out that the post-modern world is characterised by individualisation, choice and conflict.

  • Individualisation – people are under less pressure to conform to the traditional goals set by extended families, religions or cultures and have become more individualistic, selfish, etc.
  • Choice – cultural and economic changes mean that people have a greater range of choices available in terms of lifestyles and living arrangements.
  • Conflict – there is a potential clash between what people want as individuals (i.e. selfishness) and what they expect from others in a relationship like a marriage (i.e. selflessness).

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim argue that these three features have undermined relationships and marriages between men and women as demonstrated by rising divorce rates. However, this does not mean marriage is dying out. They point out that people still seek love and marriage because they believe that these compensate for the impersonal and uncertain nature of the modern world.


  1. Does the New Right approach have more in common with the functionalist or the feminist approach?
  2. Which approach views the increase in cohabitation and divorce in negative terms?
  3. Give one reason why some people may cohabit rather than get married.
  4. What does the term ‘divorce’ refer to?
  5. According to Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, what three features characterise the postmodern world?


sign up to revision world banner