Following Europe's lead? Britain traditional, but changing
I HAVE been married for 27 years, and it's easily the greatest source of satisfaction in my life.'' Over tea and sandwiches at London's Savoy Hotel, columnist Katharine Whitehorn of the Observer summarizes her views of marriage.Skip to next paragraph
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She doesn't attempt to speak for every British woman. But her views are squarely in line with those of a nation that, compared with the United States, still looks on marriage in fairly traditional ways. For example:
The number of marriages here has risen in the last two years. Also increasing is the number of marriages solemnized in religious ceremonies -- up 1 percent in 1984, after a long, steady drop since World War II.
Divorce, after steep increases in the '70s and a leveling off in the early '80s, has also begun to fall. While Britons express great concern that 1 out of 3 marriages in England and Wales ends in divorce, that figure is well below the 1-in-2 ratio in the US. There is some evidence, too, that marriages conducted in church are less likely to end in divorce than civil marriages.
Remarriage does not appear to be growing. ``A great deal of divorce is caused by a desire for remarriage,'' says Oxford demographer David Coleman. Yet last year, only 36 percent of all marriages were remarriages. By contrast, the US exceeded that figure in 1974 -- on its way up to a current 45 percent.
Cohabitation in Britain is low by Western standards. ``A lot of our cohabitation is of a different order from the Swedes and the Danes,'' says Lesley Rimmer, deputy director of the Family Policy Studies Center in London. ``They have cohabitation in lieu of marriage,'' she explains, where ``we have cohabitation as a prelude to marriage.'' Overall, only about 2.5 percent of British couples are cohabiting -- compared with 4 percent in the US and about 13 percent in France.
The illegitimacy rate, about the same as in France, stands at 17 percent of all births. By contrast, the Swedes passed that level in the mid-1960s.
Women are steadily entering the work force. But the proportion of women working (44 percent) is less than in the US (about 54 percent) -- and far less than in Sweden (78 percent).
The changes that have overtaken the institution of marriage in the past 30 years have made their mark on Britain -- but less deeply than in many other nations, the US included. Why?
One reason may be the more traditional ways in which moral issues are viewed in Britain. A 1981 Gallup survey, billed as ``one of the largest surveys ever undertaken on a worldwide scale,'' found that more than three-quarters of the British respondents agreed with the Sixth Commandment (``Thou shalt not commit adultery'') -- a far higher proportion than for any other country.
That view is changing. An October poll in the British magazine Woman's World found that 2 out of every 5 women married between 5 and 15 years admitted to having had an extramarital affair. And a Gallup poll commissioned by The Times (London) earlier this month found that 60 percent of those questioned approved of living together before marriage -- rising to 80 percent for 16- to 40-year-olds.