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Marriage rates in Australia have fluctuated since 1901, broadly in response to the prevailing economic and social conditions. The crude marriage rate (the annual number of registered marriages per 1,000 population) has fallen in times of depression or recession (e.g. in the 1930s), and increased in other times such as the immediate post-war years of the early-1920s and late-1940s. Marriage rates have also increased during times of war. The 2001 crude marriage rate of 5.3 marriages per 1,000 population was the lowest rate on record. The previous lowest rate was 5.8 per 1,000, recorded in 1997. The highest crude marriage rate ever recorded was 12.0 per 1,000 in 1942 (table 5.39).
Marriage rates for the unmarried population (per 1,000 not currently married men or women aged 15 years and over) have also fallen over time. This long-term downward trend has been evident since these rates first became available in 1976. The marriage rate for men was 63 per 1,000 in 1976 while the rate for women was 61 per 1,000. In 2000 these rates fell to 34 and 32, respectively.
Recent trends show that Australians are marrying later. The median ages of brides and bridegrooms at first marriage have increased from 21.1 and 23.4 years respectively in 1971 to 26.9 and 28.7 years in 2001 (graph 5.41). Part of this increase can be attributed to the increasing incidence of de facto relationships. Another factor is young people staying in education longer.
In 2001, 66% of marriages had a groom older than the bride and 23% of brides were older than grooms. However, there was a strong tendency for couples to be about the same age, with 45% of couples being within two years of each other, and only 10% being 10 or more years apart in age (graph 5.42).
De facto relationships
Between 1996 and 2001 the census count of people, aged 15 years and over, in de facto marriages rose by 28% from 744,100 to 951,500. This was marginally higher than the increase between 1991 and 1996 (27%). In 2001, de facto partners represented 12% of all persons living as socially married (up from 10% in 1996 and 8% in 1991) and 6% of all persons aged 15 years and over (up from 5% in 1996 and 4% in 1991). These rises may be due to both increases in the number of de facto partners and in the willingness of people to identify themselves as living in de facto marriages. In 2001 the median age of males in a de facto marriage was 34.2 years while the median age of females was 31.8 years. In 1991 the comparative medians were 32.3 years and 29.7 years respectively (graph 5.43).
De facto partnering has arisen as an alternative living arrangement prior to, or instead of marriage, and following separation, divorce or widowhood. Some couple relationships, such as that between a boyfriend and girlfriend who live together but do not consider their relationship to be marriage-like, are classified as de facto.
Of all people in de facto relationships in 2001, 68% had never been in a registered marriage and 28% were either separated or divorced. The likelihood of being never married was higher among those aged under 35, counterbalanced by higher proportions of separated and divorced de facto partners aged 35 and over (graph 5.44).
For most of the 20th century there was a slow but steady rise in the divorce rate, increasing from annual averages of 0.1 divorces per 1,000 population between 1901 and 1910 to 0.8 per 1,000 between 1961 and 1970. However, the most important factor involved in the higher divorce rates in the latter quarter of the century was the introduction of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cwlth) which came into operation on 5 January 1976. This legislation allows only one ground for divorce: irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, measured as the separation of the spouses for at least one year. Following the implementation of this law, there was a large increase in the divorce rate in 1976. The rate then declined until 1979 as the backlog of applications was cleared. Since then the crude divorce rate has fluctuated between 2.4 and 2.9 divorces per 1,000 population (graph 5.45). The crude divorce rate in 2001 was 2.8 per 1,000 population. The pattern of divorces per 1,000 married couples is very similar; in 2000 there were 12.0 divorces per 1,000 married men or women.
Table 5.46 brings together summary measures of divorces granted in census years between 1901 and 1991, and individual years between 1992 and 2001.
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