Is the concept of marriage fading away?


Marriage, also known as matrimony, is a union of at least two individuals. It is a cultural universality, a traditional, religious and legal union between or among people which establishes the rights and responsibilities between spouses. It is central to the concept of family, community, society and human existence and is therefore seen as important.

Globally, there is a growing trend showing that marriage rates are declining, while divorces are increasing. This scenario may suggest that the belief in the institution of marriage, among this generation, is gradually fading away. In South Africa and the United States, statistics show that marriages are becoming less common, with most people opting to stay single or marry later. Unmarried couples are increasingly choosing to live together instead of tying the knot. Overall, there has been a 25% decline in marriage rate in the last decade.

It was not easy to access our own comparative data on marriage rate per year. However, recent statistics show that divorce cases more than doubled between 2021 and 2022 with analysis showing that 20% of currently registered marriages are likely to end in divorce. This does not include unregistered/customary marriages.

There are several reasons linked to the gradual decline in marriage rates and the increase in divorce rates. These include economic challenges, suggesting that some men no longer find it feasible to marry and establish a family as that comes with the responsibility or burden of fending for the family. Some men have either been left by their families or fled their families because of their inability to fend for them. Traditionally, the value of men in marriage came from the belief that they were the providers for the family and that is gradually fading away, thus challenging the marriage institution.

On the other hand, the gains in women’s rights and the ensuant improvements in their access to education, empowerment and economic and employment opportunities have resulted in their economic independence and gender equality. They can now make choices on what is right for them and can decide to stay alone without succumbing to societal pressure to marry.

This also gives them the choice to move out of a relationship or to kick out the husband if the marriage is no longer serving their interests.

Some countries, mainly industrialised ones, are experiencing growing numbers of women and men living alone as well as increasing cohabitation. In addition to an estimated 20% of adults living alone, more than a quarter of those aged 25 to 34 years are living with a partner but unmarried. This also shows that, while people still believe in “partnerships or marriage”, they opt to be cautious.

Some of those who live alone prefer to have non-live-in partners. The objective is to have a partner while protecting their space. For those who prefer to live together unmarried, the objective tends to be around protecting themselves in the event of things going wrong. Divorces tend to be messy and emotionally and economically draining these days with some people losing their entire life investments.

Other factors that have contributed to lower marriage rates are migration due to conflicts and bad economies. In countries facing instability, people tend to avoid marriage and children to limit the burden they bear if they must emigrate and settle permanently in another country.

Even if they effectively migrate, their decision to marry and bear children tends to be limited by various economic, social and political security considerations. Some of the factors include declining religious adherence to marriage, public disillusionment with marriage and unstable income opportunities.

Economic reasons have also contributed to delays in marriage which plays a major role in declining rates. In some, if not most, African societies, young people used to marry between the ages of 20 and 25 years with the hope that their families would help the young couples establish themselves.

These days young people feel the pressure to secure their education first, a job and a stable income before they decide to settle down.

In contexts where economies are not performing well, that delay can be longer — the same way some people delay moving out of their parents’ houses.

Once they are established, some will only start considering marriage or a serious relationship in their 30s or 40s when they feel confident that they can handle the pressures of both marriage and family.

What does this mean for developing countries? It means birth rates among the young generations will decline depriving countries of generational replacement which is needed for the renewal of human capital and the continuation of the human race.

It also means more children will be born and raised by single or separated parents and may not have an appreciation of the family institution.

It may also contribute to the weakening of extended family bonds and thus threaten a sense of belonging and identity.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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