Marriage and Family

Germany Table of Contents

Like most other advanced countries in the postwar era, Germany recorded fewer marriages, more divorces, and smaller families. In 1960 there were 690,000 marriages, compared with 516,000 in 1990. The total for 1993 amounted to only 442,000, but most of this decline was caused by a drop of than more 50 percent in the number of marriages in the new Lšnder between 1990 and 1993. Until 1990 the decline in marriages in East Germany had been appreciably greater than in West Germany (from 215,000 in 1950 to 137,000 in 1989, compared with 536,000 and 399,000 in the same years in West Germany), but not nearly as steep in the 1990-93 period. Just as the dramatic social changes brought to the new Lšnder by unification affected birth rates there, so they also affected marriages rates.

Another difference in marriage practices between the two Germanys had been that easterners marrying for the first time did so at an earlier age than westerners. Easterners did so, it is believed, because of their desire to have children and hence qualify for low-cost child care and housing benefits. Following unification this difference remained. In 1992 the average age at first marriage was 29.0 for men and 26.5 for women in the old Lšnder , compared with 27.1 for men and 25.1 for women in the new Lšnder . Since the mid-1970s, the average age at which people marry has slowly risen for both genders in both parts of Germany.

As the number of marriages declined, the frequency of divorce increased in both states. Between 1960 and 1990, the number of divorces in West Germany more than doubled, increasing from 49,000 to 123,000 and yielding a divorce rate of about 30 percent. Divorce was always more common in East Germany than it was in West Germany. The number of divorces roughly doubled between 1960 and 1988, going from 25,000 to 49,000. In 1986 there was a record divorce rate of 46 percent. Although home to only 20 percent of the total population, the new Lšnder accounted for 29 percent of all divorces in 1990. After unification, however, the incidence of divorce decreased greatly in the east, perhaps in response to the overall uncertainty and insecurity of future prospects for single mothers in unified Germany. In 1992 the number of divorces in the new Lšnder amounted to only 10,000. In 1993, however, this number rose to 18,000, an increase of 78 percent.

Despite the increasing likelihood of divorce, in 1990 about 89 percent of all families consisted of married couples, and about 70 percent of those of marriage age were married. In both east and west, however, the failure of these families to produce the necessary number of children for population replacement was striking. Of the 15 million married couples in the former West Germany, about 57 percent had children. Forty-seven percent of couples with children had one child, 38 percent had two children, and 13 percent had three or more children. In 1950 the average number of persons in German households was 3.0. By 1990 this figure had declined to 2.3. In 1991 four-person households accounted for 13 percent of the total number of households, three-person households for 16 percent, two-person households for 31 percent, and single-person households for 35 percent. In the early 1990s, only foreign families were regularly having two or more children, with the Turkish subgroup being the largest in terms of family size.

Like West Germany, East Germany had provided legislative protection for the family and married couples, together with generous maternity leave and pay provisions. In the east, however, it was assumed that the mother would rejoin the workforce soon after maternity leave, and an elaborate child-care system was put in place. Virtually all women could obtain excellent care for their children if they wished. In the west, many mothers gave up their careers or interrupted them for long periods following the birth of a child because child care was generally unavailable. As a result, in 1990 women of child-bearing age in the east had more children (1.67) than women in the west (1.42). Supported by the state, eastern women had long been accustomed to balancing child-rearing and a profession. After unification, however, the new Lšnder experienced a precipitous decline in births because of high unemployment, especially among women (see Fertility, this ch.).

By the mid-1990s, the newest trend in household formation was what became known as nonmarital living partnerships. Between 1972 and 1990, the number of such households increased sevenfold, to 963,000, or 2.7 percent of all households. Almost 90 percent of these were childless households. Most young people were opting to live together before deciding to marry. This factor pushed the average age at marriage higher.

Another sign of the movement away from the traditional concept of family and of the manifestation of sexual freedom was the rising number of out-of-wedlock births. In the late 1980s, about one in ten West German and three in ten East German births were to unmarried women.

In the postwar period, it became clear that marriage had lost its former position as the only legitimate locus for sexual activity. In the early 1990s, polls indicated that 60 percent of German sixteen-year-olds were sexually active, compared with 15 percent in the 1950s.

In the past, when regional differences were acute, convention held that marriages between a Prussian and a Bavarian, between a Catholic and a Protestant, and definitely between a Christian and a Jew were "mixed" marriages. In modern Germany, only unions between Germans and foreigners are considered mixed. Of 516,000 marriages in 1990, about 6 percent were between Germans and foreigners. Most often German women married Americans, Italians, Turks, and Yugoslavs, and German men married Yugoslavs, Poles, Filipinos, and Austrians. In 1974 legislation was passed conferring automatic citizenship on children born of these unions.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress