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Nuptiality and divorce

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This chapter will analyse data on nuptiality and divorce in Canada, using the most recent administrative data for marriages (2003) and divorces (2004). Census data will also be used to examine patterns related to legal marriage, common-law unions and same-sex couples for the population in private households.


In 2003, the number of marriages surpassed the preceding two years but was below the figure for 2000, possibly reflecting a desire of many people at that time to marry during the millennium year. There were 147,400 marriages in 2003, slightly higher than in 2002, but about 10,000 fewer marriages than in 2000. Among the data recorded since 1945, the peak number of marriages was in 1972 (200,500), likely due to many members of the large baby boom cohort getting married. The higher number of marriages in recent years is due to increases in the population rather than a greater tendency to marry. Thus, the crude marriage rate, which indicates the number of marriages per 1,000 population, was 4.7 in 2003, stable since 2001. This was less than half of the highest recorded crude marriage rate of 1946, the first year of the baby boom (11.2 marriages per 1,000 population).

The average age at first marriage has been increasing over time as people delay marriage, often because of longer studies. In addition, more and more persons are living in common-law unions either as a prelude or an alternative to marriage. In the late 1970s, the average age at first marriage was roughly 23 years for women and 25 years for men. By 2003, this had increased by about five years to approximately 28 years for women and 30 years for men.1

Among the 147,400 marriages in 2003, about two-thirds (or 97,500 marriages) were first marriages for both spouses (table A-6.2). About 27,100 marriages, or 18.4% of all marriages, were comprised of one spouse who had been previously married and 22,800 marriages, or 15.5%, involved at least one prior marriage for each spouse.

Legal marriage by age group and sex

According to census data, for all age groups under age 60 living in private households, there were fewer individuals legally married, with spouse present, in 2006 than in 1981, consistent with patterns of deferred marriage as well as high levels of divorce. While the proportion of legally married persons is increasing for seniors aged 65 and older, the situation is different for those persons between the ages 45 and 64. In 2006, 65.3% of persons in this age group were married, a drop from 77.5% in 1981. Contributing to the lower proportion of legally married persons is the increase in the number of individuals who live as part of common-law couples.

For people in their late sixties and older, more seniors lived with a spouse in 2006 than in 1981. For persons aged 75 or more, 47.1% lived with a spouse in 2006 up from 39.7% two and a half decades earlier. One explanation for the pattern of more married seniors is the increased average longevity of Canadians which allows for the possibility of remaining in relationships until older ages. In general, men are more likely to be legally married compared to women. While women have a longer life expectancy, on average, compared to men, gains in life expectancy in recent years for men have occurred at a faster pace. The increase of life expectancy of males means that although women are still more likely to be widowed than men, this is less the case than in the past. The increase in women having spouses is notable for 70 to 74 year olds. In 1981, 42.6% of women in this age group were married, rising to 53.9% in 2006 (figure 6.1). Even among women aged 75 and over, the proportion with spouses grew from 22.8% in 1981 to 31.3% in 2006.

Figure 6.1
Proportion of the population who are legally married by age group and sex, Canada, 1981 and 2006

Provincial and territorial marriage

The number of marriages edged up 0.4% nationally between 2002 and 2003, but there were actually only increases in the number of marriages and the crude marriage rates for Ontario, British Columbia and the Yukon. The remaining provinces and territories experienced a decline in the number of marriages. In fact, in 2003, the number of the marriages in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as well as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, were the lowest recorded since 1945. The Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick followed the national trend of a possible millennium effect in that there was a slight increase in the number of marriages during the year 2000, followed by a decline during the four subsequent years. In Prince Edward Island, the number of marriages fell 8.7% from the previous year, although it still maintained the highest crude marriage rate in the country (6.0 marriages per 1,000 population).

In Quebec, the state of nuptiality stands apart from the other provinces and territories. There were 21,100 marriages in this province in 2003, less than half of the 1972 peak (53,800 marriages). The recent changing nuptiality patterns in Quebec has its roots in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s when people began rejecting marriage, a religious institution, and more and more people began choosing common-law unions. Consequently, Quebec had the lowest crude marriage rate of all the provinces (2.8 marriages per 1,000 population) in 2003.

Quebec is also unique in its introduction of the legal concept of civil unions in June, 2002,2 which allow for the legal and social recognition of same-sex and opposite-sex couples. In 2003, there were 342 civil unions, with the majority between same-sex persons (80%), probably reflecting the fact that same-sex marriages were not legalized in Quebec until the following year. In 2004 the number of civil unions fell to 178 and dropped further to 169 in 2005. However, preliminary data for 2006 indicates an increase again to 215, three-quarters of which are between opposite-sex persons.3 

 In Ontario, the number of marriages increased 3.0% from 2002 to 2003 reaching 63,500. This was the highest level since 2000 (65,400) although this province did not experience the millennium spike seen in some other provinces. Manitoba (-4.2%), Saskatchewan (-1.8%) and Alberta (-2.0%) all experienced declines in the number of marriages between 2002 and 2003.

In British Columbia the number of marriages grew 3.5% to 22,000, the third consecutive year of growth. The increases in both Ontario and British Columbia could reflect the high number of foreign-born population in these provinces. Census data from 2006 show that a higher proportion of foreign-born persons were legally married and a smaller share live as common-law partners compared to the Canadian-born population. In addition, of the marriages taking place in British Columbia in 2003, 770 or 3.5% were between people of the same sex. More than half of the persons marrying someone of the same-sex were not residents of Canada (55.9%) whereas this was the case for only 4.8% of persons entering opposite-sex marriages.4

Given the low population in the territories, there are a small annual number of marriages each year which could cause fluctuations in nuptiality patterns from year to year. For the territories, both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut experienced slight declines in the number of marriages but there was a small increase for Yukon in 2003 compared to the previous year. Nunavut had the lowest crude marriage rate in Canada (2.3 marriages per 1,000 population). Similar to Quebec, the proportion of persons who lived in common-law unions was much higher in Nunavut compared to that for the nation overall.

Common-law unions

According to the 2006 Census, 2.8 million persons aged 15 and over living in private households were common-law partners, or 10.8% of the population. In 1981, this figure was only 3.8%. Three patterns stand out when analyzing common-law unions. First, it is a more predominant living arrangement among young adults. For example, about one in five individuals in their late twenties and early thirties (22.6% and 19.4%, respectively) lived as part of a common-law union.  Secondly, the proportion of persons living common-law is growing most quickly among the population aged 40 and older. Part of the explanation for this finding could be attributed to the large cohort of baby boomers who were aged approximately 41 to 60 years of age in 2006. Thirdly, this is a living arrangement that is more prevalent in Quebec than in any other region of Canada. In 2006, 34.6% of couples in Quebec were comprised of common-law unions compared to 13.4% for the other provinces and territories. Quebec stands out as one of the places in the world where the proportion of couples living common-law is very high.5

Increases in persons living as common-law partners are evident within and across cohorts for the census years between 1981 and 2006 (figure 6.2). For example, 7.7% of individuals who were in their late twenties in 1981 and were born between 1952 and 1956 lived in a common-law union. This figure nearly tripled to 22.6% in 2006 for people in this age group born between 1977 and 1981. Interestingly, for the cohorts born in 1962 or more recently, there is some evidence of a downturn once individuals pass from their late twenties into their early thirties. This could reflect a trend in which living in a common-law union remains the preferred relationship form while young adults are in their twenties, but that this could be followed by marriage upon entering their thirties.

Figure 6.2
Proportion of persons living in common-law unions, Canada, 1981 to 2006

Increasing proportions of persons living common-law are also evident, however, for cohorts born earlier than 1961. For example, 4.1% of persons born between 1942 and 1946 lived in common-law unions in 1981 when they were aged 35 to 39. When this cohort of individuals reached age 60 to 64 in 2006, the proportion of persons who lived common-law had grown to 6.3%. This suggests that common-law living is becoming more socially accepted for all ages, indicating that individuals, even into their senior years, want to be part of a couple relationship but perhaps with fewer obligations than generally associated with legal marriage.6

Same-sex couples

The 2001 Census was the first time that data were collected on same-sex common-law couples. Five years later, the 2006 Census marked the first time information was gathered on same-sex married couples. According to the 2006 data, 90,700 persons were in same-sex unions up from 68,400 in 2001. Individuals in same-sex couples were younger than their counterparts in opposite-sex couples. About one-quarter (24.5%) of persons in same-sex couples were 34 years of age or younger compared to 18.1% of individuals in opposite-sex couples. Only 3.8% of persons in same-sex couples were seniors aged 65 or older while this was the case for 16.0% of individuals in opposite-sex couples.7

Same-sex marriage became legal across Canada in July, 2005, however, there were a number of provinces for which it had already been legalized, beginning with Ontario and British Columbia in 2003. Internationally, Canada was the third country permitting same-sex couples to marry, following the Netherlands (2000) and Belgium (2003). Same-sex marriage was also subsequently legalized in Spain (2005) and South Africa (2006). Of the 90,700 persons in same-sex couples enumerated in the 2006 Census, about 14,900 or 16.5% were persons in same-sex married couples. This represented 0.1% of all persons in married couples in 2006. More than half of the same-sex married couples were male (53.7%) and the remainder (46.3%) were female.

Fewer than one in ten (9.0%) persons in same-sex couples had children aged 24 and under present in the home in 2006, although this was more than five times as likely for women in same-sex couples (16.3%) than for men (2.9%). More opposite-sex spouses had children aged 24 and under (50.4%) compared to same-sex spouses (16.2%). Twice as many same-sex married spouses had children as did same-sex common-law partners (7.5%). Nearly one-quarter (24.5%) of female same-sex spouses had children compared to 9.0% of male same-sex spouses. For persons in same-sex common-law unions, 14.6% of women had children as did only 1.7% of men.


In 2004, there were 69,600 divorces in Canada, down 1.7% from the previous year. Although there has been some stability in recent years, this is the first time the number of divorces fell below 70,000 since 1998. In the decades of the 20th century leading up to the mid 1960s, there were very few divorces in Canada. Since that time, increases in the number of divorces have been associated with legislative changes (figure 6.3). The 1968 Divorce Act introduced the concept of “no fault” divorce based on separation of spouses for three or more years. The subsequent amendment to the Divorce Act in 1986 reduced the required period of separation to one year. The number of divorces subsequently peaked in 1987 at 96,200. At the national level, the crude divorce rate, or the number of divorces per 10,000 persons was 21.8 in 2004, down from 22.4 the previous year and much lower than the 1987 level of 36.4 divorces per 10,000 persons.

Figure 6.3
Number of divorces and marriages, Canada, 1926 to 2004

Also contributing to the higher number of divorces in the past two decades, however, could be marital dissolutions from the large cohort of baby boomers, who married in large numbers in the early 1970s. Census data show that the proportion of divorced persons aged 15 and over in the population increased over time from 2.7% in 1981 to 8.0% in 2006. Some of these persons, however, could have subsequently entered common-law unions. Regardless of the duration of marriage, the median age at divorce in 2004 was 43.0 years for men and 40.0 years for women.9

According to the most recent data, the vast majority of the marriages which ended in divorce in 2004 were based on separation of spouses for a period of at least one year (94.6%). Only 3.1% of divorces during this year attributed adultery as the reason for the marital breakdown and 2.3% cited mental or physical cruelty.10

It should also be noted that these divorces are based only on legal marriages, therefore, the dissolutions of common-law unions would not be considered in these statistics. According to the 2006 General Social Survey, there were roughly equal numbers of persons who ended a marriage between 2001 and 2006 either through separation or divorce, as there were who left a common-law relationship in this time period.11 Given that there were more legal marriages than common-law unions in Canada during that time (6.1 million and 1.4 million, respectively, according to the 2006 Census), having similar numbers leaving their unions reflects the greater tendency of the latter to dissolve compared to marriages.

Of all divorces in 2004, custody of dependents, most of whom were under age 18, was awarded through court proceedings in more than three in 10 divorces (31.6%).12 The remaining divorces either did not have dependents, or couples determined a custody arrangement independently of the court proceedings. Of the 31,800 dependents for whom custody was determined through divorce proceedings, custody was granted to the husband and wife jointly in close to half of the cases (46.5%), continuing an upward trend over the last two decades. Custody of the dependents was awarded to the wife only in 45.0% of cases down from over three-quarters (75.8%) in 1988.13 In only 8.1% of cases dependents were awarded solely to the husband in 2004 compared to a high of 15.0% in 1986.14 Consequently, it is not the proportion of cases in which custody of dependents is awarded to the husband only that explains the decrease in this proportion of dependents awarded to the wife only, but rather it is the proportion of cases being awarded jointly to the husband and wife that has increased.15 It should also be noted that joint custody arrangements do not necessarily mean that dependents spend the same amount of time with each parent.

Provincial and territorial variations

While the number and crude rate decreased at the national level, there were some differences at the provincial and territorial level. The number of divorces increased in the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Alberta, British Columbia and in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. In contrast, the number of divorces fell in the provinces of New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and in the Yukon territory.

Despite the increase in the number of divorces, Newfoundland and Labrador had one of the lowest crude rates in the country (16.2 divorces per 10,000 population). The crude divorce rate in Nunavut was only 5.1 per 10,000, but given the low counts, caution should be used when interpreting these data. The highest crude divorce rate in Canada was in Alberta (25.9 divorces per 10,000 population). However, divorce is an age-related phenomenon which decreases with age but the crude rates do not take into account the age structure of the population. Given that Newfoundland and Labrador is characterized by an older population and Alberta by a younger population, it is not unexpected that the crude divorce rates is different in these two provinces.

Table A-6.1
Marriages and crude marriage rate, Canada, provinces and territories, 1981 to 2003

Table A-6.2
Marriages, first marriages and remarriages, Canada, 1981 to 2003

Table A-6.3
Divorces and crude divorce rate, Canada, provinces and territories, 1981 to 2004

Table A-6.4
Mean duration of marriages for divorced people, Canada, provinces and territories, 1981 to 2003

Table A-6.5
Duration-specific divorce rate (per 10,000), Canada, marriage cohorts 1953-1954 to 2002-2003


  1. Age at first marriage, as well as other indicators such as first marriage rates, are not reported for men and women as the Canadian Vital Statistics do not distinguish the sex of persons who married in 2003. For average age at first marriage, the sex of persons marrying is estimated from previous years.

  2. Justice Québec. Civil Unions. Accessed February 14, 2008.

  3. Girard. C. 2007. Le bilan démograhique du Québec (édition 2007). Institut de la statistique du Québec.

  4. Statistics Canada. 2007. Marriages, 2003. The Daily. January 17.

  5. Milan, Anne, Mireille Vézina and Carrie Wells. 2007. Family portrait: Continuity and change in Canadian families and households in 2006: 2006 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 97-553-X.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid.

  8. At the time of writing of this report, marriage data for 2004 were not yet available which were needed to produce certain statistics, such as the total divorce rate. Consequently, only the number of divorces and the crude divorce rate for 2004 are discussed in this chapter.

  9. Statistics Canada. 2008. Mean age and median age at divorce and at marriage, by sex, Canada, provinces and territories, annual (years). Cansim table 101-6502.

  10. Statistics Canada. 2008. Divorces, by reason for marital breakdown, Canada, provinces and territories, annual (number). Cansim table 101-6516.

  11. Beaupré, P. and E. Cloutier. 2007. Navigating Family Transitions: Evidence from the General Social Survey- 2006. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 89-625-X. Number 2.

  12. Statistics Canada. 2008. Number of dependents in divorces involving custody orders, by party to whom custody was granted, Canada, provinces and territories, annual. Cansim table 101-6512.

  13. Statistics Canada. 2004. Divorces 2001 and 2002. The Daily. May 4.

  14. The remaining 0.4% of custody orders were either awarded to another arrangement or they were not stated.

  15. Statistics Canada. 1993. A Portrait of Families in Canada. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 89-523.