1. Main Points

  • The proportion of adults who have never married or been in a civil partnership has increased every decade from 26.3% in 1991 to 37.9% in 2021, whereas the proportion of adults who are married or in a civil partnership (including separated) has fallen from 58.4% in 1991 to 46.9% in 2021.

  • The increase in adults who have never been married or in a civil partnership (since 2011), after standardising for age, is seen across all local authorities, religious groups and ethnic groups.

  • Between 2011 and 2021, the number of widowed adults (3.0 million) has decreased by 6.3%, women who are widowed decreased by 8.3%, but the number of men who are widowed increased by 0.6%.

  • The proportion of adults who are divorced is similar in 2021 (9.1%) and 2011 (9.0%); the proportion of younger adults who are divorced has decreased, whereas the proportion of older adults has increased.

  • Adults in same-sex marriages and civil partnerships are more likely to be younger, have no religion, and have higher-level qualifications than adults in opposite-sex marriages.

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3. Geographical distribution

View the data showing the proportions of adults in each legal partnership status on our Census 2021 map.

When rates of legal partnership status are age standardised, the geographical distribution changes because of the different age structure of each area.

Figure 8: Age standardised proportions change distributions, for example, Tower Hamlets moves from having amongst the lowest proportion of widows to the highest.

Legal partnership status as an age-standardised proportion of usual residents aged 16 years and over in each local authority in England and Wales, 2021

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  1. To ensure that individuals cannot be identified in the data, population counts have been rounded to the nearest five and counts under 10 have been suppressed.
  2. Age standardised proportions have been calculated after data is rounded and supressed so will not always total 100%.
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The broad patterns observed in the geographical spread of married adults (higher proportions in rural areas) and never married adults (higher proportions in urban areas) is not changed by age standardisation. Although the differences between areas are less prominent after age is corrected for.

In England, the areas with highest proportions of people who have never been married are in London. In Wales the local authority with the highest proportion is Gwynedd.

Areas with older populations have higher numbers of widows. When age is accounted for, the 2021 proportions change substantially. Age standardisation moves Tower Hamlets, which is ranked the lowest when age is not considered, to having the highest rate of adults who are widowed.

The local authority in Wales with the highest age-standardised proportion of adults who are widowed is Blaenau Gwent.

Age standardisation also changes the patterns in types of areas with highest rates of divorced adults. The local authority with the highest proportion of adults who are divorced is Norwich, despite being 87th out of 331 local authorities before standardisation. Local authorities with high proportions when age is accounted for appear to be areas that are towns or cities but that are generally surrounded by rural areas, such as Norwich. The local authority in Wales with the highest age-standardised proportion of adults who are divorced is Neath Port Talbot.

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6. Glossary

Age-standardised proportion

Age-standardised proportions (ASPs) allow for fairer comparison between populations over time and across geographies, as they account for differences in the population size and age structure. The 2013 European Standard Population is used to standardise proportions.

Legal partnership status

Classifies a person according to their legal marital or registered civil partnership status on Census Day, 21 March 2021.

It is the same as the 2011 Census variable "Marital status" but has been updated for Census 2021 to reflect the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which made provision for the extension of civil partnerships to couples who are not of the same sex.

Usual resident

A usual resident is anyone who on Census Day, 21 March 2021 was in the UK and had stayed or intended to stay in the UK for a period of 12 months or more, or had a permanent UK address and was outside the UK and intended to be outside the UK for less than 12 months.

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7. Data sources and quality

The census provides the most detailed picture of the entire population, with the same core questions asked to everybody across England and Wales. Census results can be more reliable than survey results based on a sample of the population, because the whole population is included. The UK Statistics Authority has assigned National Statistics status to Census 2021 outputs, providing assurance that these statistics are of the highest quality and value to users. 

Census 2021 achieved a very high response rate of 97%. We ensure the census results reflect the whole population by using statistical methods to estimate the number and characteristics of adults who were not recorded on a census response. This means that the census statistics are estimates rather than simple counts of responses, so they have some statistical uncertainty associated with them. We take numerous steps to minimise possible sources of error.

Additionally, we apply statistical disclosure control to protect the confidentiality of census respondents. Differences in the methods used for statistical disclosure control may result in minor differences in data totals between census products. As we round all figures individually, table totals may not sum exactly.

Quality considerations along with the strengths and limitations of Census 2021 more generally, are provided in our Quality and Methodology Information (QMI) for Census 2021. Read more about the specific quality considerations for Demography. Further information on our quality assurance processes is provided in our Maximising the quality of Census 2021 population estimates report.

Demography and migration quality information for Census 2021 highlighted quality issues with legal partnership status. Implausibly high numbers of people reporting being (or having been) in same-sex marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. Most of this error has been corrected but census estimates of people in opposite-sex civil partnerships remain very high compared with events data. Census has more than twice as many people in total, and four times as many people aged under 40 years, in an opposite-sex civil partnership than the number of people who had entered into an opposite-sex civil partnership in England and Wales prior to Census Day.

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9. Cite this article

Office for National Statistics (ONS), released 22 February 2023, ONS website, article, Marriage and civil partnership status, England and Wales: Census 2021.

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Contact details for this Article

Daisy Broman, Lynda Cooper, Steve Smallwood
Telephone: +44 1329 444972