Is marriage really better for couples and children? An expert weighs in

Man, woman with lilttle daughter holding wooden toothbrush.
Is it better for children if their parents are married? (Getty Images)

The Office for National Statistics has released figures that show that fewer than half of all adults are in a marriage of a civil partnership for the first time.

Official data shows that the proportion of people aged 16 and above who are married or in a civil partnership was at 50.6% in 2020. However, this figure dropped to 49.7% in 2021 and even further down to 49.4% in 2022.

The ONS figures are based on population estimates by marital status and living arrangements in England and Wales in 2021 and 2022.

Commenting on the figures, Harry Benson, research director of the Marriage Foundation, said in a statement that the decline in marriage and civil partnerships is “bad news for couples and bad news for children”.

He said: “Societies throughout history have encouraged marriage because they know it’s the most effective method for bonding men with the mothers of their future children.

“The continued trend away from marriage is bad news for couples and bad news for children. Nearly half of all teenagers do not live with both natural parents, most of which due to the separation of parents who never married.”

But is marriage really better for couples and children? Benson argued in his statement that, while marriage is not the solution to everything, it “stacks the odds in favour of stable families”.

He adds that the “psychology of marriage works” and calls on the government to establish policies to encourage couples to follow the tradition of marriage.

Family of five playing on sofa at home
The number of couples who are married or in civil partnerships has declined - but those with children can still create a stable environment. (Getty Images)

However, statistics show that getting married does not guarantee wedded bliss. Nearly half (42%) of marriages in the UK end in divorce. In the majority of divorces, women were the ones who petitioned for it.

In 2021, the most common reason given for divorce among heterosexual couples was “unreasonable behaviour”, which means that the person who filed for divorce said their spouse had behaved in a way that they could not reasonably be expected to live with them anymore.

An environment in which you simply can’t live with one another doesn’t bode well for raising children.

Sara Davison, best known as The Divorce Coach, tells Yahoo UK that what children need are unconditional love, kindness, stability and trust. When their parents have a healthy marriage, it can be a “fantastic environment” in which they grow up, but the reality is that marriage “doesn’t equal that every single time”.

“I don’t think marriage is the key here, I think it’s the ability to create the environment at home for kids,” she says.

“If you want to get married, then I think that’s great, but it doesn’t always provide stability for kids. It comes down to what parents can offer the kids at the end of the day.”

Examining what could be leading to the decline in marriages and civil partnerships, Davison says that younger generations, particularly millennials, have other priorities and financial burdens to consider - and marriage just isn’t a priority anymore.

I don’t think marriage is the key here, I think it’s the ability to create the environment at home for kids.

“The challenge is that finances at the moment mean that it’s very difficult to get married, because it’s such an expensive process,” she explains. As of 2022, the average cost of a wedding in the UK is £18,400, and that figure is rising - in 2021, the average cost was 6% less at £17,300.

“A lot of couples want to live together first and people are prioritising getting on the property ladder,” Davison says. “With the divorce scene being what it is, a lot of people are scared of that too and they know it can be expensive and take a lot of time.

“So it’s just something that people have to now think through a lot harder and they don’t necessarily see that they have to have that piece of paper to be happy and create that environment for kids.”

She pointed to the rise in cohabiting couples as an example of how couples are choosing to move in with one another and start families, delaying or foregoing marriage altogether.

Figures released by the ONS last year showed that the proportion of people living in a couple that are cohabiting, not in a marriage or civil partnership, increased from 20.6% in 2011 to 24.3% in 2021.

It shows that society’s views on marriage and children have changed, and have been changing for quite some time. Davison says: “It’s a lot more acceptable to have children outside of marriage.”

Marriage is commitment, but having children with someone is an even bigger commitment - one that, unlike marriage, cannot be undone. “A lot of couples see having a child together as a sign of lifelong commitment,” she says.

“More people are saying, let’s get our finances in order, let’s get a house and start a family. That’s love and connection, that’s building a family, and the piece of paper might come later.”

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Research has shown that there is little difference in the wellbeing of a child raised with cohabiting versus married parents. Data from the Millennium Cohort Study tracked the lives of 19,000 children from the year 2000 into their adulthood and examined different aspects of how they did in life.

It suggests that children can be raised in a stable environment, regardless of whether their parents are married or cohabiting.

Rather than policies encouraging people to get married, Davison says she would rather see more education for parents on how to provide a stable home environment for their children and help them cope with relationships.

“There are some situations where you can get married but the relationship turns toxic and people feel stuck but they aren’t going to leave because the children are young,” she says.

“But what are you teaching the kids about marriage if you are in an unhealthy marriage? It’s not teaching them anything good. They learn from you as a role model, what marriage means and what the relationship looks like.”

She continues: “So instead of it being a focus on marriage, why don’t we create a focus on building a family unit in a way that’s healthy?

“That way, you’ve got a healthy relationship dynamic rather than putting all the pressure on a piece of paper. That isn’t the solution.”

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