Dating twentieth century

This was partly because women were a majority of the population, not just because of deaths in WW1 but because women had longer life expectancy, at all ages, than men. This is a period which, in present day discourse is often presented as an historical norm of long-lasting, stable marriages.

It was actually historically very unusual in the numbers of long-lasting marriages.

Then came the 1960s and permissiveness and people started divorcing, living together and having babies outside marriage, unprecedented numbers of complex families of step-relatives formed, and British society was ‘broken’ as some would put it.

‘I want suggest that the real story is a bit more complicated’, Professor Thane says.

These are some of the findings of a wide-ranging study of family life in twentieth century Britain by Professor Pat Thane, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2014 annual conference.

This is generally seen as historically new and, in its sheer extent, it probably was, at least in England.

Never in English history have so many marriages lasted so long as between the late 1940s and the early 1970s.

Marriages lasted longer than ever before or since because they started at earlier ages, were less likely to be broken by death in young adulthood or middle age, as life expectancy grew and divorce was hard to obtain.

Many people were not censorious if the couple behaved respectably, did not flaunt their transgression and there was a good reason for it, such as the difficulty of obtaining a divorce.

The most frequent reason seems to have been the restrictive divorce laws and the costs of obtaining a divorce.

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The couples involved were not necessarily opposed to marriage and might willingly have married had it been legally possible.

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