The rules around marriage – customary and legal – began to loosen from the late 1960s. The changes were part of a shift in New Zealand society. It became acceptable for couples to live together before marriage, and have children outside marriage. Gay and lesbian couples were increasingly open, and their existence became officially acknowledged. Some men began wearing wedding rings, previously worn only by women, and some women decided to retain their own surnames when they married.
Status of marriage
The status of marriage in New Zealand law and society diminished. Those in de facto relationships (who lived together but were not married) and, later, same-sex relationships, were included in some of the legal entitlements previously reserved for married couples. For example, it became possible to receive welfare benefits without marrying. Division of property on divorce became more equal from 1976, and was then extended to de facto and same-sex couples in 2002.
De facto relationships
The number of unmarried couples who lived together increased rapidly, from 6% of cohabiting couples in 1981 to 22% in 2013. De facto relationships became particularly common for younger people forming their first unions.
Those in de facto relationships were more likely to be in a relationship with someone of a different ethnicity, to have had more previous relationships, were less likely to see barriers to leaving a relationship, and were less likely to be religious.
Civil unions and same-sex marriage
Civil unions, widely seen as a form of ‘gay marriage’, were introduced in 2005. Although strongly opposed beforehand by some Christian groups, the controversy died down afterward. By the end of 2015, 3,342 civil unions had been celebrated by 2,598 same-sex and 744 opposite-sex couples. These included 591 couples resident overseas and who didn’t have the option of a civil union in their own country.
In April 2013 Parliament passed the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act, a private member’s bill introduced by Labour MP Louisa Wall, which allowed same-sex couples to marry. While there was opposition from conservative groups, opinion polls suggested that most New Zealanders, especially younger people, were in favour of the change. The first marriages of same-sex couples took place in late August 2013. By December 2015, 2,112 same-sex couples had married in New Zealand. The number of civil unions dropped considerably in the wake of the law change.
Rate of and age at marriage
The rate of marriage dropped by over half from 1970, when it was 9.2 per 1,000 people, to 2014, when it was 4.44 per 1,000. Despite this, in 2013 the number of married people (1,430,000) far outstripped the number in de facto relationships and civil unions (470,000). In 2005 the minimum age at marriage was lifted to 18, but those wishing to marry at 16 or 17 could do so with consent from parent or guardian.
Who partners who
From the early 1980s the number of couples with partners of differing ethnicity increased. This was particularly true of Pākehā, Māori and Asian people. Among Pacific people there was a slight increase in the rate of same-ethnicity partnering.