The aisle less travelled

04:44, Jun 19 2014
Brett Gardiner and Amy Clark
HAPPY COUPLE: Brett Gardiner and Amy Clark are looking forward to getting married.

New Zealand has become something of a marital wasteland.

Gone are the days when marriage was an initiation into sex, a formative cornerstone of ‘‘growing up’’ or an act of financial necessity. In fact, general marriage rates have never been lower. 

Last year, for every 1000 single people of a marriageable age, 22 got married. That’s less than a quarter of the 1971 peak rate of 91 per 1000.


Almost a third of all marriages were remarriages. 

Even the 200-plus same-sex ceremonies last year were not enough to stop the number of new marriages in 2013 plummeting below 20,000 – the first time since 2001.

New Zealand’s current generation of eligible singles are able to decide for themselves who, when – even whether – to marry. A wedding may occur before or after having children, or may never know the pitter-patter of tiny feet. Parenting and household tasks may be shared. And, at the end of the day, a divorce lawyer is only a phone-call away. 


Ours is a land of the aisle less travelled. So, why go there?  

Until the 1970s, there was a strong expectation for women to marry before having children. It’s been estimated that more than half of brides in the late 1960s were pregnant.

Now, nearly half of all Kiwi babies are born out of wedlock. Last year, the number of babies born ex-nuptially was just 3000 less than those born to married couples.

In 1980, the difference was ten times greater.

Wellington marriage counsellor Hal Kennedy says the desire to have children still prompts ‘‘a lot of people’’ to marry. 

Erin Speakman, wedding planner at Mission Estate Winery for 15 years, has observed more people getting married at an older age, and more with children. 

In the past, wedding tables were laden with gifts, she says. These days, many couples tying the knot already own a home, and prefer money and vouchers to tea towels and a Kenwood mixer.

On the other side of the register, divorce rates are in decline. Last year, 8279 couples split – a rate of 9.4 divorces for every 1000 estimated existing marriages. 

Experts say this could be related to the increase in average age of people marrying. Last year, men getting married for the first time had a median age of 30.1, and women 28.6. In 1971, it was 23 for men and 20.8 for women. 

Catriona Doyle, director of Family Law Specialists Wellington, has been giving legal advice to separating couples for 21 years, and now represents de facto and married couples in equal measure.  

She says it’s not the legal status of a relationship, but the existence of children and shared property that determines whether someone comes to see a lawyer. 

‘‘In my experience, it’s less about marriage and more about kids,’’ she says. ‘‘People tend to hang in there a lot longer if they’ve got children, whether they’re married or not.’’

So why marry in the first place?

In a practical sense, marriage automatically changes a couple’s legal status to next of kin, whereas de facto couples have to ‘‘actively contract into becoming each other’s next of kin’’, Doyle says.

The ability to adopt children is another legal entitlement that comes only with marriage.

‘‘I believe people are choosing [to marry] so their status is absolutely recognised: they are husband, or wife, or spouse.’’ 

‘‘It’s a bond on public record. And you can’t remarry overnight.’’ Couples must endure two years of ‘‘separation’’ before they can divorce.

Despite her profession, Doyle believes in the value of marriage. 

‘‘There’s no way there could’ve been that furore last year about opening marriage to gay and lesbian couples without there being a fundamental belief it’s something special,’’ she says.

‘‘I think it’s more valued both by people who get married, but also by friends and family. Anyone can end up in a de facto. Not everyone can end up in a marriage relationship, you have to work hard to get it happening.’’ There’s the paperwork: as with dogs, firearms, and vehicles, marriage requires a licence. And of course, there’s the ceremony itself. 

‘‘It’s not the magic bullet. Relationships are hard, but I do think that for some people, marriage means more,’’ she says. ‘‘Legally and socially. It think it’s a big deal.’’

Rising costs of weddings, combined with having to raise the deposit on a first home,  may be contributing to a reluctance to get hitched. Some say they’d rather spend their dosh on other things. For others, it may be a more pointed choice to deviate from tradition. Aucklander Kim Jewel, one of 26 accredited celebrants in New Zealand, has married more than 1000 people since 1999. 

She says couples have more choice around marriage, which is great, but she hasn’t noticed a change in the types of people getting married, or their reasons for doing so. ‘‘People make choices depending on their values,’’ she says. ‘‘For some, marriage is part of their identity.’’

Wellington celebrant Winsome Duggan agrees – marriage still has a place in society, however small. 

‘‘There’s still that desire to make a public commitment to each other, even if it’s only in front of half a dozen people,’’ she says. 

‘‘This commitment says, ‘‘I want to live my life with you and I love you and I want to do the best I can for you’’.’’

Stuff spoke with couples about what marriage means to them:

Names: Amy Clark and Brett Gardiner; business owners, Christchurch. Marital status: Engaged 

How long have you known each other, and how long have you been a couple?  We met when I was nine and Brett was 10, we were in standard four and both in the same class. Brett used to buy me 50c mixtures. We got together 12 months ago when I was 28 and Brett 29. Brett proposed last month. 

Why is marriage important to you?

Amy: For me it’s a commitment, a decision to share everything I am, my faith, ups and downs, to care and love someone who has declared to do the same for me. We want to celebrate the start of our lives together in ceremony that includes our families and friends supporting us on our journey.  Brett: It’s a declaration and commitment before God that you are going to love and support that person, care and grow with them for life.

What is the role of marriage in society, why do people still get married?

Amy: Its the foundation of society, a team of two who recognise that with each other they can support and encourage each other in every area of life, raise a strong healthy family as a unit with similar core values and beliefs. People get married for various reasons; romantic, religious and convenience. Mostly though because at some level couples still see the value or specialness of a public ceremony. It still holds a romantic buzz that declares that this relationship is special, we are in love and we want to make a statement to the world! Brett: To create a family together which has a stable foundation and the skills to have a positive impact on our future. A family with a social and moral conscience. People still get married because it’s a very special moment in someone’s life when they feel ridiculously comfortable, happy and couldn’t imagine their life without them, aka love.

Why do you think the number of marriages is in decline?

Amy: High divorce rates possibly takes the sparkle or allure out of marriage, especially for children who have experienced it. Pursuing careers and getting financially ahead is a pretty strong focus these days before considering marriage.  Brett: I guess some people have seen marriages implode and question its relevance or value in their own lives. It is a shame that marriage doesn’t have a better track record.  

Have your views on marriage changed over time? How?

Amy: No I’m a traditional girl and have always dreamed of my wedding day and waiting for the right guy at the right time.  Brett: Apart from the fact I thought I was going to get married at 23 (when I was young this seemed like the right time) and I’m now 30 it’s pretty much the same.  Amy: I actually thought I would marry at 23 too, I think that was what both our parents did. So maybe our views on marriage did change along the way!

Names: Jane and Craig Fowles, both 28, live at Ashburton. Occupations: Craig is a technical manager, and Jane works part time in human resources, while the rest of her time is spent at home with their two-year-old son, Caelan.

Marital status: Married in February 2014

How long have you known each other, how long have you been a couple, and when did you get married?  We’ve been together 10 years this September – met at university in a tutorial and the rest they say is history! Got engaged on February 16 2013 and married a year later on February 9 2014. 

Why is marriage important to you?

We did things backwards really – bought a house and Jane got pregnant about the same time – we’d been together eight years then. Marriage was both something we thought would happen but life just happened for us first a bit. Jane was always inspired by her grandparents – they had been together 53 years. We both always wanted to be part of something special that would stand the test of time... Nana used to always say that marriage was something you worked at, it wasn’t meant to be easy.

What is the role of marriage in society, what do people still get married?  It differs for a lot of people – for some it’s the ‘‘way you do things’’ – you get married, buy the quarter-acre dream, have a kid or two – for others it’s dictated more by their religion or belief system but for us, it was, in the words of Jane’s bridesmaid, the next stop on the train. The right time to make the commitment to know that we were there for each other no matter what – that we were prepared to work for what we had – that we were going to grow old together. 

Why do you think the number of marriages is in decline?

The institution of marriage is gone – back in our grandparents’ day divorce wasn’t something ‘‘one did’’. But now, it’s almost too easy to cast it aside and walk away. So a lot of people probably question why the hassle to begin with? Also, we’ve moved to a more secular state. The foundations are no longer built on the church so it’s not as necessary to get married to spend your life with the same person. Also, the way that New Zealand law is – you don’t have to be married now, just de facto, to be treated with the same rights. Plus getting married can be expensive – some people would rather just spend the money on a house or a trip!

Have your views on marriage changed over time? How?  Not really – I guess we both thought it would be done ‘‘the right way’’ with marriage followed by house and kids – but that wasn’t the way our life panned out – so it’s not so much our views on marriage changed but the view on how life should play out that changed

The facts about marriage

General marriage rates peaked in 1971 at 45.5 per 1000, but have gradually declined.

The number of children born outside wedlock is almost equal to the number born to married parents: 27,793 versus 30,924 in 2013.

More than 200 same-sex marriages, which were legal from August last year, were not enough to stop the number of marriages dropping below 20,000 for the first time since 2001.

Of the 19,237 marriages of New Zealand residents, 13,312 were first marriages, 5825 involved one or both parties being previously married. 

Last year, 8279 couples split – a rate of 9.4 divorces for every 1000 estimated existing marriages. The divorce rate has been declining slowly every year from a peak of 12.8 dissolutions per 1000 marriages in 2003 and 2004, to 9.8 in 2011.

Just over a third of couples who married in 1988 had divorced before their 25th wedding anniversary.

Source: Statistics New Zealand