A Century of Nuptiality in Spain, 1900–2007

Un siècle de nuptialité en Espagne, 1900–2007


This article describes the annual evolution of nuptiality in Spain from the beginning of the last century up to the present day. The analysis is based on data on first marriages from population registration data (Movimiento Natural de Población) after various adjustment and estimation operations. This source has an advantage with respect to census data, since it allows us to follow the annual nuptiality fluctuations that are very sensitive to prevailing social and economic conditions. Over the long term, the phases of nuptiality in Spain are comparable to those observed in Western Europe. However, leaving aside the period disturbed by the Civil War (1936–1939), Spain does exhibit some particular features: a long interlude from 1940 to 1959 marked by late marriage, rooted in the long depression of the Spanish economy; a prolonged rise in nuptiality which lasted until the end of the 1970s, corresponding to the late arrival of the first oil shock in Spain; and finally, a certain delay in the decline of marriage, accompanied—since the early 2000s only—by a parallel diffusion of cohabitation. Last, Spain is converging with Europe in another aspect that is seldom taken into account. While, from 1950 to 1980, it was one of the few European countries to register a first marriage rate unfavourable to women, the reversal of this trend since the 1980s has brought Spain closer to the majority of its neighbours.


Cet article propose une reconstitution de l’évolution annuelle de la nuptialité espagnole depuis le début du XXème siècle à nos jours. Les données proviennent de la statistique de premiers mariages fournie par le registre de l’état civil, après un certain nombre d’estimations et d’ajustements. Cette source présente l’avantage, par rapport au recensement, de permettre un suivi annuel, mieux adapté à un comportement démographique qui répond avec une forte élasticité aux conditions sociales et économiques du moment. Sur le long terme, les phases de la nuptialité espagnole sont comparables à celles observées en Europe occidentale. Cette adéquation mérite d’être soulignée face à l’idée d’une soi-disant « singularité » espagnole. Cependant, en dehors de la période perturbée de la guerre civile (1936–1939), l’Espagne garde des traits spécifiques : une longue parenthèse allant de 1940 à 1959, marquée par un mariage tardif, et qui survient dans une période fort déprimée de l’économie espagnole; un essor de la nuptialité prolongé jusqu’à la fin des années 1970, correspondant à une arrivée tardive de la première crise pétrolière en Espagne; et enfin, un certain retard dans la phase de déclin général du mariage, accompagnée seulement depuis le tournant des années 2000, d’une diffusion significative des unions de fait. Enfin, l’Espagne converge avec l’Europe sur un autre aspect relativement peu considéré : si tout au long des années 1950–1980 elle fût l’un des rares pays européens à enregistrer une primo-nuptialité défavorable aux femmes, le retournement de tendance qu’elle connaît depuis les années 1980, l’a rapprochée de la plupart de ses voisins.

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  1. 1.

    Cachinero uses the censuses dating from 1887 to 1970 as well as the 1975 Padron, which reflects marriage behaviour in the 1950s.

  2. 2.

    This includes marriages of single men with widows or, after 1981, with divorced women, and marriages of single women with widowers or, again after 1981, divorced men.

  3. 3.

    The exclusivity of canonic marriage dates back to 1564, when Philip II enacted the marriage decrees issued by the Council of Trent. Before that, other forms of marriage existed marginally, but always within the framework of a religious wedding.

  4. 4.

    The start of this tendency is marked by the Law of Religious Freedom of 28 June 1967, passed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council which ended in 1965.

  5. 5.

    The reader may also consult: Sanz Serrano (1956), for an overview of Spanish statistical institutions and their legislative bases; Pérez Serrano (2000), for the historical and political context of the development of Spanish statistics during the nineteenth century; Reher and Valero Lobo (1995), for a thorough and systematic presentation of all the demographic sources in Spain for the contemporary period.

  6. 6.

    This rate is obtained, for each age and each sex, by dividing the number of first marriages by the total number of individuals of the age and sex in question, whatever their marital status.

  7. 7.

    The population denominators are published on the webpage of the INE (www.ine.es).

  8. 8.

    In the same year Spain also lost Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the last vestiges of the vast colonial empire built in the sixteenth century.

  9. 9.

    In July 1909, troops being forced to embark in the port of Barcelona on ships bound for Morocco to put down the uprising of Moroccan nationalists, disobeyed their superiors’ orders to do so. Their refusal was met with brutal repression. Apart from the actual circumstances that provoked the incident, the harsh social and economic conditions of the time must also be taken into consideration.

  10. 10.

    Note that in 1914 there was a sharp decrease in GDP/inhabitant (−4.6%) in Spain, which was by no means fully recouped the following year (increase in GDP/inhabitant of around 0.6%).

  11. 11.

    The economic indexes show that economic activity, which had severely declined between 1915 and 1918, slightly recovered in 1919 and speeded up in 1920, before finally slowing down its growth rate in the years that followed (see García Delgado 2002 and Fig. 3).

  12. 12.

    The increase in second marriages in 1919 is the result of unions between widowers and single women, and later the rise in 1920 is due to marriages between widows and single men. The relative extent of “recuperation” is also greater in the former type of unions. This reveals an inequality in the decision among widowers and widows to re-enter the marriage market and/or in the chances of finding a new partner. Unions between widowers and widows are in an intermediate position in terms of the timing and extent of “recuperation”.

  13. 13.

    At first, these circumstances benefited relatively older single women in particular, leading to a transient increase in 1919 in the female mean age at marriage, a tendency not found among men (see Fig. 2).

  14. 14.

    The appearance of free unions among certain sectors of the working class during the last years of the Republic and the Civil War cannot be ignored, but their role was probably a modest one.

  15. 15.

    In economic terms, 1947 was not an especially good year. The wheat harvest, for instance, was a third less than it had been in 1946 (Instituto Nacional de Estadística 1951). Perhaps it may be explained by the disappearance of the political tension created the year before in February 1946 by the declaration of the UN General Assembly condemning the Franco Regime, followed by a resolution of a similar nature in December of that same year (see Biescas and Tuñon de Lara 1990, pp. 225–229).

  16. 16.

    The rationing of essential food introduced at the end of the war was prolonged until the beginning of the 1950s. Throughout the 1940s, wheat production fluctuated between 20 and 30 million tonnes; in the first third of the century this figure was between 30 and 40 million tonnes. Also, there was a shortage of housing due to difficulties in the construction industry; housing stocks, which had risen by 10% between 1920 and 1930 and by 2% between 1930 and 1940 despite the Civil War, fell by 2.5% between 1940 and 1950 (Tafunell 2005). Spain suffered a long post-war period which affected the general climate in the country and the ordinary lives of the vast majority of the population.

  17. 17.

    Franco died in November 1975, but the political and institutional structure of the regime remained more or less intact until 1977. The new democratic constitution was not voted on until 1978.

  18. 18.

    A comparative study carried out for the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, in a substantial number of European countries and the US concludes that these two factors have separate effects. The prolongation of schooling among the young delays union formation in all countries, while the level of education achieved has an important and similar effect only in those countries where the family unit is still very traditional (Blossfeld 1995).

  19. 19.

    In certain countries, such as France for example, first cohabitating unions have, until now, almost totally made up for the decline in first marriages (Prioux 2003).

  20. 20.

    It is true that the marriage rates had been at these levels since 1982, but then they were very probably due to the under-reporting of Catholic weddings in the Civil Register as a result of the agreement reached between the Vatican and the Spanish State in 1981, mentioned above in Sect. 1. It is not known with any precision the extent of this under-reporting but it is thought that it reached its maximum in 1982–1983, with an underestimation of almost 17%, then became negligible after 1985 or 1986 (Delgado and Fernández Cordón 1989). We can assume that Spanish nuptiality continued its decline until 1985, the year in which unemployment reached its maximum in the 1980s.

  21. 21.

    From provisional data, it is estimated that the first marriage rate continued to decrease down to 0.48 for women and 0.43 for men in 2008.

  22. 22.

    The unemployment rate rose from 16% in 1990–1991 to 24% in 1994. Later, it dropped to a minimum in 2001 of 10.5%; unemployment then levelled off for several years before resuming its downward trend in 2004, reaching 8.3% in 2007. The unemployment rates of the present economic crisis are 11.5% for 2008 and 18% for 2009. Given Spain’s recent economic history, one may be sure that this increase will continue.

  23. 23.

    The law of 13 May 1981 established, among other things, the principle of equality between men and women concerning financial decisions. In 1975, thanks to the reform of commercial law, married women were able to work without the authorisation of their husbands and to administer their own affairs. Similar laws were passed in other European countries in the 1960s (for example in France in 1965).

  24. 24.

    Probably the considerable immigration to Spain from Latin America in the 2000s (20% of the women aged 25–29 resident in the country in 2006 were of foreign origin) has contributed to the accelerated diffusion of cohabitation; this type of union is more frequent among this population group than among the Spanish (Castro Martín and Domínguez Folgueras 2008). However, this factor alone is far from sufficient to explain why cohabitation has become so widespread in recent times.

  25. 25.

    Other countries, especially the Scandinavian countries, have also established such civil contracts, but they are reserved for homosexual couples (Festy 2006).

  26. 26.

    Different laws were voted by the regional parliaments of the Autonomous Regions of Catalonia (1998), Aragon (1999), Navarre (2000), Madrid (2001), Valencia (2001), Andalusia (2002), Canary Islands (2003), Extremadura (2003), Balearic Islands (2003).

  27. 27.

    The concept of “Second Demographic Transition” was introduced in the mid-1980s by Ron Lestheaghe and Dirk J. van de Kaa. A complete account can be found in Van de Kaa (1987). For a general critique of the concept see Coleman (2004); for a more specific critique see, for example, Bernhardt (2004).

  28. 28.

    In 2005, 49% of women and 62% of men aged 25–29 (i.e. cohorts 1975–1979) still lived with their parents (Eurostat 2005). Compared to these results for Spain, the proportions in other countries, for women and men respectively, are 11 and 21% in France, 14 and 24% in the UK and 12 and 25% in Germany. In Italy and Portugal, young people also leave the family home at an older age, the figures being 52 and 71%, and 44 and 66%, respectively.

  29. 29.

    A similar change can be observed for the same period in other southern European countries such as Italy, Portugal or Greece.

  30. 30.

    To obtain this estimate we used the life tables built from censuses, which are available every 10 years for the whole period (INE 1991, 2008). For each table and for each sex, an average probability of survival between birth and the marriage ages was calculated. Probabilities were then applied to the number of live births corresponding to each of the cohort groups reaching the marriage age each year. The probability of survival values for the intercensal years were computed by interpolation. Given that we are dealing with period life tables, it was assumed that each group of cohorts reaching marriage age during year “n” lived after birth under the mortality conditions measured by the table of ten years before (i.e. “n – 10”). Other more sophisticated tests have been undertaken with similar final results to the ones presented here.

  31. 31.

    The ratio between the male probability of survival to marriage age and that of women of the same age was approximately 0.95 in the life table of 1900 and was almost 1 in the table of 2004–2005.

  32. 32.

    The effects of the downward trend in the birth rate on the nuptiality of the female and male cohorts of the 1930s has been analysed in detail by Cabré (1993).

  33. 33.

    Readers interested in matters related to the marriage market in Spain may consult a number of interesting studies each dealing with different aspects: the effect of the decrease in the birth rate at the end of the 1970s on female nuptiality (Cabré 1993), the impact of the size of the cohorts born in the period 1921–1950 on their nuptiality and their migratory behaviour (Pascual 1998), the evolution of age difference between partners (Esteve et al. 2009).


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Many thanks to Diana López-Falcón, Verónica de Miguel, Marta Roig, Albert Sabater and two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on earlier drafts of the article. This study has been carried out as part of the project titled ‘Migraciones internas, constitución familiar y empleo: Dinámicas temporales y territoriales’ financed by the ‘Plan Nacional de I+D+i (2004–2007)’ of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science (SEJ2004-01534).

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Muñoz-Pérez, F., Recaño-Valverde, J. A Century of Nuptiality in Spain, 1900–2007. Eur J Population 27, 487 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10680-011-9234-1

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  • Nuptiality
  • Marriages
  • Cohabitation
  • Spain
  • Twentieth century


  • Nuptialité
  • Mariages
  • Cohabitation
  • Espagne
  • Vingtième siècle