Fewer marriages and fewer divorces

Rafael Puyol. Vicepresident. IE Foundation

4 November 2010

The economic crisis means fewer people are getting married but the number of divorces is even lower, highlighting the cost of both.

After a decade of recovery, the birth-rate fell in 2009. The fallback has to be attributed partly to the crisis we today use as a wildcard for explaining all our misery; but there are other extra-economic factors related to the arrival of generations with fewer women of the reproduction age. However, the crisis, merciless and so far insensitive to any remedies for correcting it, has had important demographic consequences.

Such is the case of weddings and divorces. The evolution of the wedding rate involves concepts that have increased in recent years. People get married later on in life, fewer of them get married in churches (although church weddings are still very popular), marriages break up earlier and people don´t always get married to have children. They are also fewer in number, although there has been an increase in second and even third weddings.

The fall in "official" weddings has been partly compensated by common-law marriages and to a certain extent, since 2005, by weddings between people of the same gender. However, although it is true that the fallback in the wedding rate was more evident in 2009 than in previous years, it is also true that the figure has been falling since 2005. In other words, the descent has not come from the crisis, but rather the crisis is simply speeding it up. However, a distinction must be made between weddings between Spaniards and those in which at least one of the spouses is foreign. The former have been most heavily affected by the fall. But the latter grew constantly until 2009, when the figure fell slightly, although it did not prevent the growth of their relative participation in weddings on the whole. This is another feature that needs to be emphasised: the increase in weddings between Spaniards and foreigners reached 21% of the total figure in 2009.

Getting married in the latter stages of the economic bonanza was a less frequent affair. Indeed, the fall in the number of marriages was not greater thanks to the mixed weddings that compensated the rarity of weddings between Spaniards. Getting married in times of crisis is more complicated. Some couples have put off their wedding because of the uncertainties of the labour market and the difficulties involved in buying a home or paying a rent that takes up most of a low and somewhat insecure salary. There are not many weddings between people who earn €1000 a month. And we do not know if the same is true of common-law marriages, but everything points to it being so since the phenomenon of living together is particularly common among young couples, especially those who live in towns and cities. People leave their parents´ home later on in life and indeed some of those who had managed to buy a home thanks to a generous initial investment made by their parents have returned to their family home because they cannot pay the mortgage. Some children return home and not only for Christmas.

Consequently, there are fewer weddings, but there are also fewer separations and divorces. The passing of the fast-track divorce law in 2005 changed the role played by the two main factors behind divorce. The fast-track quick divorce made things faster, eliminated the need for a preliminary separation and for alleging a cause for the divorce, which meant that this form of breaking up a union exceeded the number of separations that had held the monopoly until then. However, in the end and unlike some had predicted, the fast-track divorce did not lead to a significant increase in the total number of divorces. The 2004 figure (132,000 breakups) was not much lower than the 2007 figure (137,000).

On such a scenario of change, what the crisis does (especially 2009) is intensify the fall. The higher numbers of divorces in 2006 and 2007 can be interpreted as the initial response to a more permissive law that was anticipated by some and that brought in the possibility of urgency and avoided prolonging difficult situations in such delicate matters. Shortly afterwards, everything went back to normal and the river dried up with the crisis, together with the economic connotations of every separation or divorce process (maintenance payments, housing expenses, etc.). It is also important to remember that more than half the divorces of 2009 involved young children and that the father in particular was ordered to pay alimony in 60% of the cases. However, the mother obtained the custody of the children who were minors in most break-ups. Single-parent families with the mother at the helm and with small children are on the increase in our country.

Finally, the reduction in the number of divorces has not prevented the average time broken marriages have lasted from growing shorter and shorter. In 2009, it was less than 16 years and one out of every five lasted only between 6 and 10 years. Even so, the facts do not prevent most people in Spain from considering marriage as one of the best institutions for couples who want to live together.

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