Cohabitees warned as ONS data reveals extent of pandemic plunge in marriages

New data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revealed the extent of the sharp drop in the number of people getting married during 2020.

According to the ONS, there were 85,770 marriages in total in England and Wales in 2020, a decrease of 61% from 219,850 in 2019. This fall represents the lowest number of marriages on record since 1838.

What’s more, marriage rates fell to their lowest on record in 2020. For men, there were 7.4 marriages per 1,000 men not in a legal partnership compared with 19.1 in 2019. For women, there were 7.0 marriages per 1,000 women not in a legal partnership, down from 17.8 in 2019.

This, the ONS says, was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions which included the temporary closure of wedding venues and registration offices as well as restrictions on the number of guests who could attend weddings.

However, while the drop was exacerbated by the pandemic, it does follow a general trend of decreasing marriages. Specifically, between 1989 and 2019, the number of marriages fell by some 36.6%, according to the ONS.

With regards to the age of those getting married, the average (median) age at marriage for opposite-sex couples in 2020 was 35.3 years for men and 33.2 for women; for same-sex couples this was higher at 38.1 years for men and 34.6 years for women.

Kingsley Napley Family partner Abby Buckland said the figures reinforce the idea that cohabitation law needs “urgent attention”:

“Today’s figures once again confirm the trend of declining rates of marriage and the Government should take note. It’s all very well to have started a review of the Matrimonial Causes Act and how finances are divided between separating spouses on divorce, but if marriage is out of fashion, then the rights of cohabitees and greater protection for their families need urgent attention.

Cohabitants have limited rights on relationship breakdown resulting in stark and often unfair outcomes for individuals affected and their children, particularly when compared to their married counterparts. The Government has repeatedly failed to extend legal protections in this area but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest this should be a priority and today’s figures add to that. Regardless of pandemic factors, the data shows that marriage is no longer the norm for families in modern Britain and our laws must be updated to reflect that.”

“The pandemic rode a coach and horses through weddings in 2020,” said Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown:

“These are clearly one-off spikes, but they do reflect overall trends. The plunge in wedding numbers comes against the backdrop of falling marriage rates […] Meanwhile, the rise in average ages of brides and grooms, and the increasing proportion who have been down the aisle before also reflect established patterns.

So, while we can take little from the 2020 figures but a sense of how dramatically weddings were impacted by the pandemic – and how hectic subsequent years are likely to be – there’s every sign that the trend of fewer marriages, and weddings at older ages have endured. It means more couples are still living together without the legal protection of marriage. And while it’s brilliant news that people are no longer rushing down the aisle, they need to be aware of the risks they face by cohabiting too.”

Want to have your say? Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more stories

Join nearly 3,000 other family practitioners - Check back daily for all the latest news, views, insights and best practice and sign up to our e-newsletter to receive our weekly round up every Thursday morning. 

You’ll receive the latest updates, analysis, and best practice straight to your inbox.