28 May

How Long Does a (Royal) Marriage Last?

Posted By Politybooks

First posted 2nd December 2010

According to the view expressed by the Bishop of Willesden on his Facebook page, about seven years, at least for Prince William and Kate Middleton, who will be getting married on 29th April next year. Leaving aside the bishop’s other idea that there should be ‘a party in Calais for all good republicans who can’t stand the nauseating tosh that surrounds this event’, is his assessment that marriages contracted today have such a short shelf-life only applicable to royals?

The recent evidence from the British royal family tends to support the bishop. Of Queen Elizabeth II’s four children, three have been divorced after relatively short marriages. Princess Anne was married to Mark Phillips in 1973; they separated in 1989 and divorced in 1992. They have two children. Anne married again, also in 1992, and the new couple are still together. Prince Charles and Diana Spencer were married in 1981, officially separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, though Diana reported that the marriage had been in trouble since 1986 when Charles began seeing a former girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Charles and Diana also had two children together. Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson in 1986; the couple separated in 1992 and were divorced in 1996, again with two children. The exception is Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones, who were married in 1999 and still are. Again, they also have two children. We might wonder how the Queen’s eight grandchildren – the next generation – will fare in their intimate relationships.

Of course, royal weddings and marriages are the stuff of fantasy and myth-making and we cannot assume they have many similarities with the relationships of the majority of people. Yet in spite of this general caveat, the fact that British royal family members have to handle divorces, remarriages, stepfamilies and manage the diverse relations amongst the various adults and children involved does highlight in a very public way the increasing fragility of intimate relations, as well as the fluid character of what we mean by ‘the family’ in contemporary societies.

If, in the past, royals married for prestige – linking royal dynasties or carrying on the monarchy – today it seems they are more likely to marry on the basis of love and romance. As historical sociologists have shown, building intimate relations on romantic attraction and love is quite a recent development, described by Lawrence Stone (1980) as ‘affective individualism’. That is, individuals rather than families select their partner based on ‘affective’, emotional attraction and commitment. The main problem with this selection method is that it puts a lot of stress on maintaining feelings of love in the relationship and if such feelings should dissipate, why should a couple remain tied together – especially when romance can be rekindled with another partner? When we desire and actively seek the joys of a ‘pure relationship’ (Giddens 1993) it becomes more likely that serial marriage will be normalized, very long-term relationships will become unusual, and the conventional nuclear family a thing of the past (see here for this viewpoint). But does the evidence support this view?

In Britain it is certainly true that divorce rates rose sharply from the 1970s onwards, a consequence, in part, of legal changes freeing up opportunities to divorce and making the process less rooted in the apportioning blame. Of course, it also suggests a large number of unhappy people previously trapped in dead marriages. By 1993 there were some 165,000 divorces every year. On the other side, marriage rates have also been falling quite consistently since the early 1970s, and in 2007 the overall marriage rate for England and Wales was just 4.4 per thousand population, below the EU 27 average of 4.9. From a highpoint of just over 480,000 marriages in 1972, by 2008 there were only 270,400 weddings. The picture is more complex than this, however.

Since 2004 the number of divorces has actually been decreasing and in 2007 there were only 126,700, well down on 1993. Indeed, only four out of every ten marriages ends in divorce, which means a majority of marriages do not do so. It seems that divorce rates have peaked and are now decreasing. Similarly, though marriage rates are decreasing over time, some 37 per cent of all marriages contracted in 2008 were remarriages, which may show a commitment to the institution of marriage and not disillusionment with it. Marriages may ‘fail’, but marriage still seems the preferred or ideal option for intimate relations, even if people have to keep trying to get one that works! This is the kind of evidence we may think supports sociological theories of pure relationships and the predominance of our ‘normal chaos of love’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995).

The recent introduction of civil partnerships, which opened up a form of civil ‘marriage’ for same-sex couples, was enthusiastically embraced with 40,237 partnerships contracted between 2006 and the end of 2009 (see the data here). However, around 16,000 of these took place in 2006, the first year after their introduction, while in 2009 the number was down to 6,281. Of course, we have to bear in mind the much smaller size of the homosexual population and the fact that many couples who have been together for a long time may not wish to change their currently successful partnerships. Again, some form of officially sanctioned, public status for coupling seems to appeal to most of us in spite of all the evidence on divorce and separation.

Serial marriage and relatively high divorce rates do, of course, have social and social policy consequences as more people live alone for longer periods of time, more children grow up in single-parent families or across two shared-parenting families, whilst attitudes towards family life amongst younger generations also change. Young people are more likely to cohabit before or instead of marriage and will marry later than their parents’ generation, currently at around 30-32 years of age. Women are also older on the birth of their first child. So, although the social landscape of intimate relationships has been utterly transformed over the last 40 years or so, our commitment (or perhaps it’s an addiction?) to individualized romantic coupling in the search for enduring love remains as strong as ever. And the younger members of the British royal family are demonstrating that they are no longer immune, if they ever were, to the powerful forces of social change.

Chapter 10 on families and intimate relations is clearly the best place to go for a detailed overview of these issues as well as some of the statistical evidence. Pages 623-4 and 645-51 cover civil partnerships and homosexual relationships, whilst lone-parent families also feature on pp. 525-7.


Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love (Cambridge: Polity).

Giddens, A. (1993) The Transformation of Intimacy: Love, Sexuality and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Cambridge: Polity).

Stone, L. (1980) The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (New York: Harper and Row).

Philip W. Sutton