Marriage in the Time of COVID – A Statistical Review

By Randy Jackson

If we are lucky, we only have to endure various COVID-19 effects on society for one to two years. Any effect that the pandemic might have on the incidence of marriage likely won’t even register as a bump on the long, long road in the history of marriage; however, whatever COVID effects there might be, could also exacerbate some negative trends in the institution of marriage in 2020-21. Sampling from a flood of research, articles, and speculation on the institution of marriage, I pulled together four interesting statistics to see what might happen to pandemic marriages.

The first record of a marriage ceremony is from Mesopotamia in 2350 BC. Anthropologists suggest that marriages between one man and one woman started around the time when humans first formed agricultural societies, about eleven or twelve thousand years ago. With the advent of personal property, men needed to know which children were their biological heirs. Back then, and for a long, long time thereafter, the title of Tina Turner’s 1984 hit song “What’s love got to do with it?” pretty much summed things up. Marriages were arrangements made between family groups for economic and political reasons. They bound one man to one woman (not equally) for the production of children, the division of labour, and the inheritance of property.

How Do We Meet and Marry?

Even today half of all marriages in the world are arranged. India comes to mind in this regard, as 90% of that country’s marriages are arranged. Young people in India, even in the wealthiest and most educated levels of society, still largely prefer to enter into a marriage where a spouse is chosen for them (in modern educated families each marriage candidate holds a veto). There are a number of studies that show arranged marriages are no less successful than those called “love marriages.” Just before COVID struck, 35% of couples met online, the most frequent method for meeting a partner. COVID could only increase this trend.

When Do We Marry?

Another trend going into the pandemic is that people are getting married later. In Greek and Roman times up to the middle ages, marriage was common for girls starting at age 12, for boys it was age 14. By the 15th century records show the common marriage age was closer to 17. By colonial times in Europe and North America, women were commonly getting married by 20 and men by 26. By 2017, the age of marriage in Canada, Mexico and the USA was 27 for women and 30 for men. Marriage age in Europe is generally higher – Sweden had the highest marriage age among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, well into the mid-30’s. Turkey had the lowest marriage age in the OECD, with women marrying before the age of 25 and men before 28.

How Often Do We Call It Quits?

News stories abound on the extra stress on marriages because of COVID lockdowns and restrictions. One of many such articles is a BBC story from December 2020, “Why the pandemic is causing spikes in break-ups and divorces.” Although the story uses anecdotal or “soft” data, not statistics (it’s too early for that), one source was a major British law firm. The firm reported an increase in divorce inquiries of 122% over the previous year. There have been increases in divorce inquiries in the U.S., China, and Sweden – and no doubt other countries as well. There’s a busy year ahead for divorce lawyers.

One thing that is not news going into the pandemic is that divorce rates around the world have been climbing for decades. The highest divorce rates in the world are in Europe, often greater than 60%, followed by Canada and the USA, nearing 50%. Latin and South America are lower, as is much of Asia. Vietnam has the lowest in the OECD (7%).

This chart shows the percentage of divorces among couples who have been married only once. Divorce rates per capita – perhaps a better statistical measure – are increasing around the world and have been for years leading up to these COVID times. (The divorce rate in the U.S. has actually been decreasing, from a high of 50% in the 1980s, but it varies by age group – “gray” divorce rates are going up.) Divorce rates for 2021 and beyond should be interesting, with couples bursting out of lockdown and heading to their divorce lawyers on the one hand, but fewer marriages in 2020 to hit the rocks further downstream.

How Many of Us Do NOT Marry?

One final statistic that pulls together all the trends mentioned above is the percentage of single-person households.

Following the same country pattern as divorce rates, European countries (especially Nordic countries) have the highest number of single person households, followed by Canada and the USA, then Latin America and Asia. Pakistan has the lowest number of single person households in the OECD.

This statistic is where all aspects of the decline in traditional marriage come to rest. Fewer people are choosing to marry, those marrying are doing so later in life, and more couples are separating and divorcing. All this leads to a higher number of single person households. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If there is a crisis here, it’s that we need more houses. That first recorded marriage back in 2350 BC, between two kids who would be in grade 7 in our times – just doesn’t work. Things have changed, and marriage too will change and adapt.

Increasing equality between the sexes, personal and economic freedoms, birth control, and just plain knowledge of the world all mean that marriage has some catching up to do. In times of COVID and beyond, women and men will find some form of relationship that works for them and for them to have and raise children. Love – Para Siempre. Feliz Día del Amor y la Amistad.

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