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Marriage and divorce in New Zealand - article

Key Statistics - article, March 2001, p. 7-10

Marriage and divorce in New Zealand1

Recent statistics have highlighted subtle changes in the dynamics and structure of the New Zealand family. Underlying these changes are significant shifts in family formation norms, nuptiality patterns and reproductive behaviour, the growth of de facto or common law unions, and a rise in the divorce rate. This article briefly reviews the major trends in marriage and divorce in New Zealand over the last three decades.


There were 21,085 marriages registered during the December 1999 year, an increase of 950 or 4.7 percent over 1998. This is the largest annual increase in marriages recorded since 1982. Despite increases in the number of marriages in the last two years, the latest figure is still 22 percent lower than the post-war peak of 27,199 in 1971, and it is lower than the number of marriages recorded in any year between 1965 and 1991.

The general marriage rate (number of marriages per 1,000 estimated not-married population aged 16 years and over), which has been declining fairly steadily since 1971, rose from 15.7 per 1,000 in 1998 to 16.2 per 1,000 in 1999. It is too early to say whether this shift is significant, however, previous departures from the downward trend (1981 and 1990) were small by comparison. Despite the latest upturn, the current marriage rate is only about one-third of that recorded at the post-war marriage peak in 1971 of 45.5 marriages per 1,000. Many factors have contributed to this large fall in the marriage rate and these include: the substantial growth in informal or de facto unions, the trend towards delayed marriage, and increasing numbers of New Zealanders not marrying.

The proportion of marriages in which one or both partners had previously been divorced or widowed has grown in recent years. In 1971, 4,385 (or about one in six) marriages involved the remarriage of one or both partners. By 1999, this number had risen to 7,476 (or about one in three of all legal marriages).

Divorcees accounted for about 90 percent of persons who remarried in 1999, well up from 67 percent in 1971. Divorcees who remarry are more likely to marry another divorced person than a never-married or widowed person. This can be partly attributed to the increase in the number of divorcees. In 1971, only 4 percent of not-married people were divorced; by 1996 this had risen to 14 percent. Among those aged 40 to 49 years, 51 percent of not-married people were divorcees.

Higher rates of remarriage are now another important factor in the continuing rise in the age at marriage. Divorced and widowed men and women are generally older at the time of remarriage than those marrying for the first time. In 1999, the median age (half of those marrying are older than this age) of divorced and widowed men remarrying was 43.0 years and 61.1 years, respectively, while the median age of divorced and widowed women remarrying was 39.4 years and 54.6 years, respectively.

Age at marriage

The shift away from early marriage has resulted in fewer men and women marrying in their teens. In 1999, only 665 teenage girls were married, compared with 8,717 in 1971. Teenage brides made up 32 percent of all brides in 1971, compared with just 3 percent in 1999.

The trend towards later marriage, which is common in most developed countries, has seen the median age of first-time grooms rise to 28.9 years, and of first-time brides to 27.0 years. First time grooms and brides in 1971 were, on average, about six years younger than their present day counterparts, with median ages of 23.0 and 20.8 years, respectively. Women still marry men older than themselves, but the gap between the average age of men and women at first marriage has narrowed. In the mid-1960s this gap was 3.0 years and by 1999 it had narrowed to 2.0 years.

Graph, Marriage and Divorce Rates.

The rise in median age at marriage is a reflection of: the trend away from early marriage, increasing numbers of people remaining unpartnered throughout their twenties and thirties, and a growing number of people living in de facto unions. At the 1971 Census, about one in three women aged 20 to 24 years had never married; in 1996 well over four in five women in this age group had never married. Similarly in 1996, 51 percent of 25 to 29 year olds and 28 percent of 30 to 34 year-old women had never married. In 1971, the corresponding figures were 12 and 6 percent, respectively.

De facto unions

With an increasing proportion of New Zealand men and women remaining unmarried through their thirties, it appears likely that fewer will ultimately marry. A growing proportion of New Zealanders, like their counterparts in Australia, North America and Europe, live together without legalising or formalising their union. In 1996, about one in four men and women aged 15 to 44 years who were in partnerships, were not legally married.

Graph, Proportion Never Married.

De facto unions are more common than marriage among younger New Zealanders. Among women aged 20 to 24 years, 62 percent of those who were in partnerships at the 1996 Census were in a de facto union. For men, the corresponding figure was 73 percent.

Marriage dissolutions

Changes in the number of divorces and divorce rate in New Zealand since 1961 are shown in Table 1. The sharp rise in the number of divorces in the early 1980s mainly reflects the legislative changes introduced in 1981. The Family Proceedings Act 1980, passed in 1981, meant that an application for marriage dissolution could be made by either the husband or wife on the grounds that the marriage had broken down irreconcilably, provided a two-year separation requirement was satisfied. Many couples who could satisfy the two-year separation requirement for the single ground of irreconcilable marriage breakdown sought the simpler Family Court dissolution. Consequently, divorces recorded a temporary high of 12,395 in 1982. Subsequently, both the number and rate of marriage dissolutions dropped, but the trend has been upward again since the late 1980s.

Table, Divorces and Divorce Rates.

Data for the last four years suggest the number of divorces has temporarily stabilised at around 10,000 per year. In 1999, the family courts granted 9,936 marriage dissolution orders, a slight decrease of 101 or 1 percent on the 1998 figure of 10,037.

The divorce rate (number of divorces per 1,000 estimated existing marriages), which rose sharply in the mid-1990s, also appears to be experiencing a respite from its upward trend. In 1999 the divorce rate stood at 12.6 per 1,000 existing marriages, slightly lower than the 12.7 recorded in 1998. During the late 1980s the rate averaged 11.8 per 1,000. It fluctuated around 12.0 during the early 1990s and has been around 12.5 per 1,000 since then.

A significant proportion of marriages in New Zealand last for a relatively short time (Figure 3).

Graph, Divorces.

Couples who had been married for between five and nine years accounted for over one-quarter of all divorces in 1999. Almost two out of every five marriages dissolved in 1999 had lasted for less than 10 years. Annual divorce statistics, however, tend to exaggerate the incidence of marriage break-up. Cohort data indicate that 83 percent of couples who married in 1989 were still together in 1999, and for about two-thirds of couples, death, not divorce, will end their marriage.

Age at divorce

The rise in age at divorce is continuing. This partly reflects the marked trend towards later marriages, which started in the early 1970s. The median age at divorce in 1999 was 41.2 years for men and 38.4 years for women. Divorcees were, on average, almost three years older than those whose marriages dissolved a decade ago, in 1989. The median ages then were 38.3 years for males and 35.5 years for females.

For women, divorce continues to be most common amongst those aged 25 to 29 years, with 23.8 divorces per 1,000 existing marriages, compared with 23.1 per 1,000 for those aged 20 to 24, and 21.3 for the 30 to 34 year-olds. Among men, the most common age for divorce fluctuates between the 25 to 29 year-old age group and those aged 30 to 34 years. In 1999, the most common age group was 25 to 29 years, with 23.4 divorces per 1,000 existing marriages. In 1999, men aged 30 to 34 years had the second highest divorce rate of 22.5 per 1,000, followed by those aged 35 to 39 years with 19.9 per 1,000 existing marriages.

Half the marriages dissolved in 1999 had lasted less than 12.8 years. This compares with the median duration of 12.0 years for marriages that ended in divorce in 1989. The upturn in median duration of marriage may be attributed partly to the breakdown of more long-term marriages, particularly those over 25 years duration. In 1999, 16.8 percent of all divorces were to people who had been married for 25 years or more, compared with 11.8 percent a decade earlier.

Note: More detailed marriage and divorce statistics than those published in this article are available on request from Statistics New Zealand.


1 For any enquiries relating to this article, please contact Mansoor Khawaja, Chief Demographer, Demography Division. Email:

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