“Till death do us part.” It is one of the most famous sayings associated with weddings, although it too is becoming more and more anachronistic with each passing year. Nowadays, marriage vows are increasingly valid not until death but until the divorce hearing in court. The number of divorces in Europe has doubled in the last 50 years. This process goes hand in hand with a steadily decreasing number of weddings, which has decreased by 50 percent in the last half a century.
Does this mean that the 21st century will become the century in which the typical family, understood as a legalized union between a man and a woman, will cease to exist? This cannot be ruled out, but neither is it a foregone conclusion given that there are countries in Europe with more marriages and fewer divorces than before. The vast majority of these are in the central part of the continent. Where does this difference come from?
Focus on individual fulfillment
Queen Elizabeth II died just a year after his husband, Prince Philip. They were married for 73 years – longer than any other royal couple in history. Their record was highlighted just after the death of the British queen as one of her hallmarks. But who held this record before Elizabeth and Philip? Well, it belonged to Queen Anne of Romania and King Michael I of Romania.
They were married in 1948. A year earlier, in November 1947, King Michael had been invited to the wedding of Elizabeth and Philip. But a month later, in December 1947, he was forced to abdicate by Romanian communist authorities. He was called “king” even while living in exile in Switzerland; Prince Philip was the godfather of his oldest daughter Margareta. His marriage to Queen Anne endured until she died in 2016. They spent 68 years together. Michael died a little over a year after her. Charles, Prince of Wales at that time (now King Charles III), took part in the funeral of King Michael.
However, this is not a story about wedding records – but rather about social change. Michael and Anne were the longest-lived couple in their time. But it was not a tradition followed by their children. Of their five daughters, only one (Margareta) never divorced. The rest did. Their example shows how attitudes towards permanent relationships have changed.
For centuries, it was virtually impossible for a couple to break up after marriage; it was long forbidden by law in many countries. In Austria, for example, divorces were only permitted in 1978 (though in most CEE countries – contrary to Western Europe – divorces were possible even in the 19th century).
But in recent times, divorces have started to be the new normal. According to Eurostat statistics, in 1964 (first available data), there were 8.0 weddings per 1000 persons. In 2020 this average decreased to 3.2 weddings per 1000 persons. At the same time, the number of divorces has risen significantly. In 1964 we had in Europe only 0.8 splits per 1 000 persons. By 2020 this average has doubled to 1.6 divorces per 1000 persons. Part of the explanation for this rise is the change in the law. After 1964, some European countries decided to legalize divorces, e.g., Ireland, Italy, Malta, and Spain, which affected statistics and the reason they increased. But not the only one. The most significant influence on this rise was the change in society that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. “A decent job, a well-maintained home, mutual spousal aid, child-rearing, and shared religious faith were seen almost universally as the goods that marriage and family life were intended to advance. But the psychological revolution’s focus on individual fulfillment and personal growth changed all that,” wrote prof. W. Bradford Wilcox, an American sociologist, in his essay “The Evolution of Divorce.”
Does a rising tide always lift all boats? Not necessarily. The rising tide of divorces and falling tide of weddings is primarily a peculiarity of Western European countries. In Central Europe, these processes are much slower and smoother. This is confirmed by Eurostat data. In Czechia, there were 8.3 marriages per 1000 citizens, which decreased to 4.2 in 2020. In Hungary, it went down from 8.7 in 1964 to 6.9 in 2020. In Poland, the statistics show that there were 7.4 marriages per 1000 persons in the middle of the 1960s, and there were 3.8 marriages in 2020. At the same time, the number of marriages went down from 9.0 to 4.2 in Romania. In Austria – from 8.0 to 4.4.
Of course, the conclusion of the data is clear – The decline in the number of marriages is an ongoing trend. But it is, however, much weaker in the CEE countries than in other parts of Europe. Eurostat statistics once again. The average of marriages (per 1000 persons) for EU countries was 8.0 in 1964 and 3.2 in 2020. In Belgium, the number of marriages went down from 6.9 to 2.8. In Malta – from 6.4 to 2.2. In Spain, the number of marriages decreased from 7.4 to 1.9, and in Italy, from 8.1 to 1.6. Clear confirmation that Central European countries are dragging the EU average down, not up.
The same pattern can be observed by analyzing the number of divorces. In the EU, the number of splits increased from 0.8 (per 1000 people) in 1964 to 1.6 in 2020. In most Western countries, these numbers are higher. For instance, in Germany, they went up from 1.1 in 1964 to 1.7 in 2020. In the Netherlands – from 0.5 to 1.7. In Luxembourg – from 0.4 to 2.3. In Sweden -it went from 1.2 to 2.5. The speed at which divorce was gaining popularity was much slower in CEE countries (maybe except for three Baltic states, which have one of the highest divorce rates in Europe). Bulgaria went up from 1.1 in 1964 to 1.3 in 2020. In Croatia – from 1.2 to 1.3. In Poland – from 0.7 to 1.4. In Slovakia – from 0.5 to 1.5.
But the most astonishing things happened in Romania and Hungary. In the middle of the 1960s. They had one of Europe’s highest rates of divorces – 1.9 per 1000 citizens. But in 2020, it was significantly lower – respectively 1.2 and 1.5. How was it possible? One of the answers is Covid-19. During the pandemic (which started in 2019), many different social processes were frozen. But in this case, such an answer is only a half-truth, as the rate of divorces in these countries started to decrease earlier, and the pandemic only sped up this trend.
At the same time, another process could be observed in Hungary: a gradual increase in marriages being performed. In 2010 there were only 3.6 weddings for every 1000 citizens, but in 2020 this number rose to 6.9. “The decline was halted in 2010 in the wake of the global financial crisis. The number of marriages increased due to appropriate governmental measures, and the direct impact of governmental measures can also be statistically proven,” explained Csaba Moldicz, a Hungarian scientist.
“Marriages are not as they are made, but as they turn out,” says an Italian proverb. But examples of Central European countries prove that social environment plays a vital role in the situation of married couples. The region is more conservative, so the pressure to get married and avoid divorce is greater. But at the same time, we see governments of countries of the region helping families – with Hungarian authorities as the brightest example of this social policy. “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” – is written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CEE countries at least try to remember this statement.