Marriage rate

American short story writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce said love was "a temporary insanity curable by marriage", and the immortal Peter Cook, as "Impressive Clergyman" in The Princess Bride, droned of "Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam wiffin a dweam".

Whether you think marriage is a cure for insanity or a "dweam wiffin a dweam", fewer New Zealanders are choosing to stand in front of their families and friends, exchange vows and rings, sign a piece of paper, walk back down the aisle to Beyonce or Bruno Mars, and sail off into the sunset until death they do part.

Except that isn't strictly true, and we should be wary of reading too much into statistics that can always be massaged to bolster one opinion.

The latest report from Stats NZ, released this week, does indeed reveal the general marriage rate in New Zealand is declining.

Last year, it fell to a rate of 10.76 couples per 1000 people eligible to marry or form a civil union. That was the lowest rate since statistics were first gathered in 1961, and a long way off the high-water mark of 1971, when a whopping 45.49 couples per 1000 people said "I do".

The immediate reaction from conservative groups such as Family First - which described the marriage rate as "shocking" - was to paint a worrying picture, to suggest the plummeting rate of marriage was bad news for wider society.

The salient point missed by most was that the actual number of marriages and civil unions had risen. There were 20,949 marriages and civil unions
in New Zealand last year, up from 20,685 in 2017.

The drop in rate, from 10.88 to 10.76, can be explained by the fact there are more New Zealanders eligible to marry - our population is increasing slightly, and ageing.

Here is another point to satisfy those concerned we are descending into the pits of immorality and shame by not getting married at a higher rate: the divorce rate is down.

There were 7.7 divorces last year for every 1000 existing marriages and civil unions. That was down from 8.4 in 2017, and a world away from the rough year of 1982, when the rate of couples saying "I don't" was 17.2.

Do any of these numbers matter anyway? Some will suggest the low rate of marriage speaks ill of the modern world, that fewer marriages will inevitably lead to more family violence and child abuse and crime, but when does an old-fashioned argument become a tired one?

There are, absolutely, marriages that provide love and stability and warmth and support and commitment. There are also marriages that provide pain and poverty and dangerous places for children.

It is possible to keep an open mind on marriage. You can celebrate your own marriage, and the institution of marriage, and not be threatened by people choosing not to get married. You can be entirely unbothered by the fact our Prime Minister has a child out of wedlock, and congratulate her on her engagement.

Times have changed, and our attitudes towards things like marriage rates are going to seem archaic if we don't move with those times.


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