At the start of the 20th century, it was usual for a man and woman to start courting in their late teens or early 20s, marry after a few years, and start a family. Fewer than one third of women had had sex before they were married, and it was usually with their future husbands. Homosexual relationships were condemned, and gay marriages were unheard of.
Divorce was not common in the early 20th century. The only legal basis for divorce was adultery, and because there was a stigma attached to sex outside marriage, it was difficult to gain social acceptance as a divorced person.
If a divorce was granted, custody of any children was automatically granted to the father. Before the 20th century, few women were financially independent, and it was usually husbands who earned the greater part of the family income and would control resources. During the 1920s, legal reforms took place that gave a wife property and inheritance rights above any children. This ended the idea of marriage as a patriarchy.
The wars disrupted family life in many ways. Many husbands were abroad for long periods, women worked, and children were evacuated for safety. Loneliness, stress – and new opportunity – contributed to many illicit relationships. The work of the Marriage Guidance Council, established in 1937 to educate the public about the emotional, psychological and sexual elements of marriage, increased noticeably. After the Second World War, women’s experiences had opened up employment opportunities in professions such as nursing and teaching, so women had to rely less on marriage for financial stability.
In the 1960s, the introduction of the contraceptive pill for use by unmarried women meant that the fear of unwanted pregnancies was lifted. The Abortion Act of 1967 permitted the termination of pregnancy in specific circumstances and made the procedure available on the National Health Service. Sex before marriage became more common. People still wanted to get married, but the concept had changed and marriage became a more balanced partnership.
In the 1980s, couples started living together whether or not they were to be married. One third of children were born out of wedlock, but illegitimacy ceased to be a social stigma. Divorce grew throughout the century and by the 1990s as many as one third of marriages ended in divorce. Marriage continued to be important however and figures for remarriage were high.