Marriage remains one of the most important social institutions in Canada, but overall the marriage rate in Canada is declining and the traditional portrait of a family is being transformed. In 2011, 67 per cent of Canadian families were headed by married couples — down from 70 per cent in 2001, according to Statistics Canada. In 2011, for the first time in Canadian history, there were also more single-person households than couple households with children. Common-law couple households, and same-sex couple households are also on the rise, while the percentage of opposite-sex married couples declines.

Century of Change

Over the last century marriage rates have fluctuated and often corresponded with historical events. During the Great Depression the rate fell, presumably related to high unemployment and negative economic conditions. During and following the Second World War there were fewer single men, which lowered the number of marrying couples, however following the war couples were reunited and the marriage rate rose.

Since the 1960s, marriage and divorce in Canada have undergone profound changes. The baby-boom period (1946 to 1965) was a time when couples married relatively young and by current standards had large families. Today the trend for an aging population continues and there are more couples without children, and couples are less likely to marry early and have children.

Marriage ceremonies are performed either by clergy during a religious ceremony or during a civil ceremony. At the beginning of the 21st century, 76 per cent of marriage ceremonies were religious. Common-law marriage has become increasingly common in Canada. This form of cohabitation does not involve a legal ceremony but it does gradually confer rights and obligations that are similar to marriage. These rights are acquired through the act of living together and, where applicable, having a child together.

In 2000 the census indicated a slight rise in the marriage rate, five for every 1,000 people in Canada, which was attributed to couples choosing to marry at the start of the new millennium. After the millennium the marriage rate fell to 4.7 marriages per 1,000 people (compared to 10.9 in the 1940s), continuing the trend of a declining rate. Married couples are still the predominant family structure, however, between 2006 and 2011, the number of common-law couples rose 13.9 per cent, which, is more than four times the increase for married couples.

(Up-to-date data on these trends is now more difficult to come by. Statistics Canada announced in 2011 that it would no longer collect numbers on the country's annual marriage and divorce rates.)

Age at First Marriage

The overall number of young people who are marrying is decreasing and the average age for both men and women when they first marry has been gradually rising. In 1950 the average age for first marriage for men was 28.5 years and for women was 25.9 years. This was higher than the 1960s-70s, when people married at younger ages — for example, in 1972 the average age of 23.0 years for women and 25.4 years for men. By 2008, the average age for first marriage had resumed the trend and was 29.6 years for women and 31.6 years for men.

What has remained stable is that grooms are generally two years older than brides. This has implications both during the marriage and towards its end. Women, on average, live longer than men (in 2004 the life expectancy for women was 82.6 years and 77.8 years for men). A woman is therefore much more likely to die as a widow, while a man is much more likely to die as a husband.

Age of newlyweds is also a key factor for first marriage dissolution. Teens who marry face a marriage dissolution risk that is almost double that of individuals who marry between the ages of 25 and 29, and people who wait until their mid-30s or later who have a 43 per cent lower risk.

Common-Law Relationships

In 1961, 92 per cent of Canadian families were married couples, however by 2011, this proportion had declined to 67 per cent — a change mostly due to the growth of common-law couples. Between 1981 and 2011 the number of married couples increased by 20 per cent, however, the number of common-law couples more than quadrupled (+345 per cent). Today, first unions are more likely to be cohabitations than marriages.

Although common- law relationships often lead to marriages, they are generally more short-lived and dissolve more frequently than marriages. The laws in each province and territory differ regarding how they recognize and govern common-law unions, but in general, common-law couples earn the same rights as married couples after they have lived together for at least one year. Under the Civil Code in Québec, common- law relationships are not recognized in the same way as marriages. They are referred to as de facto unions, and spouses living common-law have the same rights and responsibilities as married or civil union couples regardless of the number of years the couple has lived together.

Nuptial patterns in Québec differ from the rest of Canada, and some of the differences are rooted in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when fewer people chose a religious marriage and more began to choose common-law unions. In 2006, 29 per cent of all families in Québec were common-law couples and Québec accounted for 44 per cent of all common-law-couple families in Canada. Quebec's rate is similar to that in Sweden, which has one of the highest incidences of non-marital unions, and Québec's rate is approximately three times the number of common-law unions in the United States.

Division of Labour

In the past there was a rather strict division of labour between husbands and wives in most marriages. In general, husbands were responsible for the economic well-being of the family, while wives were considered responsible for child care, housework, keeping the family in good emotional and physical health, and generally for many of the service functions associated with families. In addition, farm wives worked on the farm, and many wives in working-class households took in boarders or sold their household services to non-family members, to contribute to their family's income. Since the early 1980s, the majority of Canadian wives have been earning an independent income and contributing financially to the family income. This situation has reduced the economic dependency of wives on husbands and shifted the balance of power within marriages. It has also meant that the majority of preschool children are cared for by somebody other than a parent during portions of their day. By 2003, more than one-half (54 per cent) of Canadian children were in some form of child care.

Although the gap between men and women still exists, the division of labour for such tasks as housework is slowly narrowing. In 1986, 48 per cent of men and 78 per cent of women reported doing some housework; by 2010, 65 per cent of men and 76 per cent of women of the same age range reported doing housework.

Family Law and Family Responsibility

Family law comprises separation, divorce, custody, access, child and/or spousal support arrangements, protection orders and guardianship. There are also programs and services such as mediation and conciliation to resolve some family law disputes outside of the court.

Since 1978, all provinces have substantially changed their family laws, generally assigning equal responsibility to husbands and wives for all types of family responsibilities, including housework, child care and provision for the financial well-being of the family. As a consequence, in divorce settlements housework and child care are now generally recognized as contributions to a family's overall economic well-being through which a spouse may claim matrimonial assets. Since the majority of children reside with the woman after a divorce, the per capita income of the female post-divorce household tends to be much smaller than that of the male post-divorce household.

In 2010, family law cases accounted for approximately one third of all civil court cases in Canada; divorce and other family dissolution cases were the majority of family law cases. The majority of family law cases require more than one year to resolve.


Marriages can be dissolved through annulment or divorce, both of which involve a judicial decree, and remarriage to another person can occur only after a previous marriage has been legally terminated.

Divorce law is under federal jurisdiction. In 1968 Canada's first unified divorce law was passed. At that time, divorce became easier to obtain, although considerable legal and other difficulties remained. Divorce could be obtained on the basis of a matrimonial offence (previously the only basis on which divorce was available) or on the basis of marriage breakdown. Before 1986, if marital breakdown was cited as the reason for divorce, a couple had to have lived three years apart before they could obtain a divorce. In 1986 a revised Divorce Act (1985) was proclaimed in force. The revised act included a "no-fault" divorce and the sole reason for divorce now is marriage breakdown, which is defined as either living apart for at least one year or committing adultery or treating the other spouse with physical or mental cruelty. Recent statistics reported that almost 95 per cent of divorces were based on separation of spouses for a period of at least one year. The divorce rate has been steadily rising. Following the first major change in the divorce law in 1968, there was a sharp increase (from 54.8 divorces per 100 population in 1968, to 124.2 in 1969). Since that time the increase has continued at an accelerated pace with a second peak in the late 1980s following more revisions of the Divorce Act.

At the beginning of the 21st century a study showed that the lowest risk of divorce was during the first year of the marriage but the risk then rose and peaked around the fourth anniversary, after which the risk slowly decreases. A substantial proportion of couples eventually divorce and the majority of couples who divorce will have been married for less than 15 years.

Marital Breakdown

Divorce rates alone are not sufficient indicators of the breakdown of relationships because they do not include judicial separations, divorces granted in other countries and desertions. Since divorce has become easier to obtain, the reasons for underestimating union dissolution have likely decreased, but the break-up of common-law unions is also not reflected in divorce rates, despite the increase in the number of these unions.

Reasons for the rise in the divorce rate, a phenomenon that has occurred in virtually all industrialized countries, are not entirely clear, but contributing factors probably include longer life expectancies, which increase the possibility of differences in the individual development of wives and husbands; the greater labour force participation of women and improved Social Security, which has meant that wives are less economically dependent on their husbands than in the past; the lessening of religious and social sanctions against divorce; and the movement towards a more individualistically-oriented ethic that stresses self-actualization over maintenance of the family unit. All of these factors suggest that an increased divorce rate may be an indication that expectations about the quality of marriage have risen and that many people prefer a divorce to an unhappy marriage. Divorce cases involving support costs and children custody and access require more time in court; in 2010, 84 per cent of the cases remaining in the court system for more than four years included support arrangements.

Three significant factors are associated with the risk of a breakdown in marriages: the ages of the bride and groom, the length of the marriage and the strength of an individual's commitment to marriage. Commitment to marriage as a source of happiness for an individual was a key factor associated with marital collapse. People who believed that marriage was not very important to their happiness were three times more likely to dissolve their marriages. Also, Canadians who remarried were significantly less likely to report that being married was an important source of happiness for them.

Single-Parent Families

Lone-parent families result from divorce, separation, death or having a child outside of a union. Recent studies indicated that common-law families are five times more likely to experience a parental split than married parents. When there are dependent children involved, divorce usually leads to the formation of one-parent households.

In 2002, approximately one in four Canadian families with children (approximately 1.4 million families) were headed by one parent, a 58 per cent increase from 1986. About one-third of all lone parents were divorced, one-quarter were separated, and a fifth were widowed.

In 1986 figures for joint custody began to be recorded. In that year, joint custody was awarded for 1.2 per cent of the children involved but by 2002 the rate had increased to 41.8 per cent. Joint custody does not mean that the child spends 50 per cent of the time with each parent; rather, it may only mean that both parents have an equal right to make certain decisions about the child's life. In 2006, there were about four times as many female lone-parent families as male lone-parent families, however, from 2001 to 2006, male lone-parent families grew more rapidly (15 per cent) than did female lone-parent families (6.3 per cent). These changes were partially a result of greater acceptance of births outside marriage and a result of the changes in legislation.


Given that a high proportion of marriages end in divorce, a large number of people in their middle years again become available for marriage. The majority of people who divorce remarry, although men are more likely to remarry than women. In the 1990s, approximately one-third of all Canadian marriages involved at least one partner who was previously married, and by far the largest component came from divorced rather than widowed people. By the turn of the millennium, about 10 per cent of Canadians had married twice and approximately 1 per cent had married more than twice.

Families involving dependent children who have two parents who are still alive but not married to each other have become more common in Canada. Questions of overlapping and competing responsibilities and rights of step-parents versus biological non-residential parents are in the process of being socially defined.

Families in which at least one of the children in the household is from a previous relationship from one of the parents are often referred to as step-families. Blended and stepfamilies have changed the composition of Canadian families. By 2001, 12 per cent of Canadian families were step-families that incorporated children from the parent's previous relationships. The term "blended family" is also used to describe a family that incorporates children of one or both spouses from previous unions and one or more children from the current union. Almost half of Canadian families are "blended" and more than 81 per cent of these families have children from the current union.

Same-Sex Unions

In 2001 Statistics Canada began collecting information about same-sex partnerships, and about 0.5 per cent of all couples reported living in same-sex unions. The questions on the survey did not include information regarding sexual orientation, therefore the data on same-sex partnerships cannot be used to report on the number of homosexuals in Canada, only the number of relationships that involve two people of the same gender.

Canada was the fourth country to permit same-sex marriages, after the Netherlands (2000), Belgium (2003) and Spain (2005). Since 2003, when Ontario and British Columbia became the first two provinces to legalize same-sex marriage, most of the provinces and one territory have recognized same-sex marriages. In 2005, the federal Civil Marriage Act was enacted making same-sex marriage legal across Canada. This change required that definitions for husband and wife be amended to "spouse," and the definition for dependent children became "enfant à charge" to include and protect same-sex spouses and their children. The Income Tax Act replaced the term "natural parent" with "legal parent" to ensure that upon divorce, support payments would include the children of opposite-sex and same-sex couples. The Supreme Court also ruled that under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a religious official cannot be compelled to perform same-sex marriages if it is contrary to their religious beliefs; however, the government does have a duty to provide access to civil marriage for those same-sex couples who want to marry.

Originally it was difficult to determine the number of same-sex marriages because some of the provinces did not specify that a marriage is opposite-sex, male same-sex, or female same- sex, or the gender of the person getting married. During British Columbia's first year of legalized marriages of same-sex couples, 3.5 per cent of the marriages were same-sex marriages and of these, 54.5 per cent were female couples. More than one-quarter (27.6 per cent) of women who married another woman that had previously been married, while 14.2 per cent of the men who married another man had previously been married. In 2003, Canada was the only country in the world that allowed same-sex marriages between people who were not Canadian residents, and during that year, 5 per cent of the same-sex marriages involved non-residents, although the vast majority (95 per cent) did live in Canada.

There has been a substantial rise in the number of same-sex couples in Canada. In the 2006 census, there were more than 45,000 same-sex couples, 1 per cent of all couples, which was a 33 per cent increase from 2001. The census also counted same-sex married couples for the first time, reflecting the legalization of same-sex marriages for all of Canada as of July 2005. Overall, 17 per cent of same-sex couples were married.

Contemporary Families

According to the General Social Survey, most Canadians marry once and fewer than 1 per cent marry more than twice. The demographic trends that have been noted for Canadian families (eg, rising divorce rate and greater numbers of women in the labour force) are not restricted to Canada but are typical of all highly industrialized nations, although significant national differences remain. Another common trend among industrialized countries is a sharp decline in fertility rates. In Canada between 1960 and 1980, fertility rates dropped by more than 50 per cent in all age categories and by 2003 the birth rate was 10.6 per 1000 people. While the average number of children per woman was 3.9 in 1960, within 40 years that figure had dropped to 1.5.

Although marriage is defined as a partnership of equals, the economic consequences of a divorce tend to be more negative for women and children and neutral or positive for men. The increase in the number of divorces, and the consequent increase in remarriages, coupled with the increase in the proportion of women who give birth outside of marriage, has led to a discrepancy between marital and parental roles: an increasing proportion of the people who are parents together are not necessarily married to each other. This discrepancy has different consequences for men and women: most women continue to live together with most of their dependent biological children, while many men do not share a household with (all) their biological children. For children this means that they may have parents living in separate households, or that they may live with a step-parent. The availability of divorce and the marked increase in common-law relationships underlines the voluntary rather than compulsory character of marriage.

In 2006 approximately 4 per cent of Canadian couples comprised one visible minority group member and one non-member. The number of couples with persons belonging to two different visible groups, or mixed unions, has grown at more than five times the growth for all couples. Given the increasing diversity in Canada's population, mixed unions and relationships in many different social, educational and work-related settings, the 2011 census began to report couples with children as intact families or stepfamilies.

Aboriginal People

For generations, Aboriginal people registered under the federal Indian Act as status Indians were affected differently by marriage and divorce than most Canadians. An Indian woman would lose her registered status, and her First Nation band membership, if she married a non-status man. Such women also lost the ability to pass on Indian status to their children. However, a non-status woman who married a status Indian man would gain status, and be able to pass status onto her children.

This was changed in 1985, when new federal legislation ended such discriminatory rules. The changes protected the status of registered Indian women who married non-status partners, and allowed those who had lost their status and band membership to reclaim it, or reapply for it.

Until recently, the provincial and territorial marital property laws available to most Canadians also did not apply to Aboriginal people who lived on reserves, which are under federal jurisdiction. Most homes on reserves were owned by husbands, not wives. This meant that a woman had no property rights to the couple's matrimonial home in the event of divorce, or the end of a common-law partnership. Women could also be kicked out of the home, and off the reserve, by abusive husbands.

In 2013, the federal government introduced new matrimonial property laws, which would eventually apply on all First Nations reserves except those that created their own local rules with matrimonial property rights for women. The 2013 changes conferred equal property rights to male and female spouses, living on reserve, in a marriage or common law relationship.

See also History of Marriage and Divorce.