At the end of the twentieth century, the distribution of the Latvian population by gender did not offer favorable prospects for lifelong partnerships for all adults: Among residents, 54 percent are women and 46 percent are men (Demographic Yearbook of Latvia). The proportion of sexes differs significantly by age. Up to thirty-five years of age, the numbers of men and women are close to equal, and each person could have a partner of the opposite gender. Beyond that age, however, the prevalence of women increases proportionally.
Two factors explain the disparity in gender in older groups. In most developed countries, males have shorter life expectancies, but Latvia has one of the greatest differences between males and females: only sixty-five years for newborn boys, compared to seventy-six for girls. World War II and the Stalinist repressions that followed also account for the gap in numbers. The victims were mainly young men, men who were of an age at which they were most likely to marry. In the mid-twentieth century there were only sixty-three men per one hundred women. Due to such disproportion, the distribution of men and women by marital status is uneven. According to the census data in 1989 at above sixteen years old almost 68 percent of men and only 56 percent of women were married, while 7 percent of men and 11 percent of women were divorced, and 3 percent of men and 18 percent of women were widowed. In their thirties, both sexes have the highest marital rate—80 percent of men and 77 of women were married. The shortage of males affected sexual and marital behavior. Extramarital sexual relations became more frequent, and society acquired a more tolerant attitude to those involved. This also delayed the elimination of patriarchal gender roles as women were ready to comply with all the wishes of their husbands in order to prevent the husbands from leaving them for other women.
Political, economic, and demographic obstacles did not prevent people from forming partnerships and families. The number of marriages per thousand of population was nine to ten per year during most of the twentieth century. Only during the 1990s did the marriage rate decrease rapidly, down to four per thousand in 2000. During the 1990s, legal marriages were largely replaced by nonmarital cohabitation. According to the Fertility and Family Surveys of the ECE Region (1998), almost 17 percent of men and 16 percent of women eighteen to fifty years of age agree that marriage is an outdated institution. Women's opinions do not significantly differ by age, but among men, young men are much more likely to agree with this statement.
Among the generations born between 1945 and 1949, only 3 percent of men and 5 percent of women were living in a consensual union in 1999, but in generations born between 1970 and 1975 this proportion rose to 9 percent of men and 11 percent of women (Zvidrins 1999). The percentage of women who had started their first partnership by living with a partner to whom they were not married increased from 25 percent of all who entered any union among the older generations to 51 percent among younger one. Statistics also show a drastic increase in the share of those who entered their first partnerships when they were under twenty years of age. Among the older generations, 34 percent of the women and 13 of the percent of men were in this category. Among the younger generation, the figure was 50 percent of the women and 27 percent of the men (Zvidrins 1999).
The growing popularity of partnerships entered when the parties are young has not led to similar changes of age at marriage. During the Soviet occupation, the percentage of marriages among people under twenty increased to 6 percent among men and 23 percent among women. This trend was determined by two main reasons. Among the massive influx of migrants, the proportion of young people was twice that of the residents. Marriage rates among the young also rose because of the scarcity of contraceptives under the Soviets, which led to so-called forced marriages because of unwanted pregnancies. The average age at first marriage decreased between 1970 and 1990 from twenty-five to twenty-four years for men and from twenty-four to twenty-two years for women. This trend reversed after the collapse of the Soviet system. With the elimination of restrictions on human rights, exchange of information, and other aspects of life, people felt freer to become involved in premarital and nonmarital co-habitation and to delay marriage. At the end of the twentieth century, the average age at which people married had risen to the highest ever observed in Latvia: thirty-two for men and twenty-nine for women in 1999; the average age at first marriage was accordingly twenty-six and twenty-four years. But the proportion of first marriages has constantly decreased, down to 69 percent for men and 70 percent for women in 1999 (Demographic Year Book of Latvia 2000).
The overall marriage rate during the 1990s describes the trends in civil marriages; the number of church marriages was constant. The number of church marriages, as a proportion of the total, rose from 15 to 23 percent during the 1990s. One-fourth of new spouses, who marry in church, are not of the same denomination, a situation that is explained by the diversity of ethnic groups and religions in Latvia. One-fifth of ethnic Latvians, two-fifths of ethnic Russians, and nine-tenths of smaller minorities chose a spouse of another ethnicity (Demographic Yearbook of Latvia 2000). This reflects the aforementioned tolerance to immigrants to the country.
Marriages are not stable in Latvia. Since the mid-twentieth century, the divorce rate increased up to 5 per 1,000 inhabitants a year in the 1980s. Conditions that were common under the Soviet System explain this increase; these conditions include the economic independence of women, particularly high in Latvia, widespread alcoholism among men, poor housing, and the difficulties of everyday life, as well as scarce information on interpersonal communication, family roles, and other factors that influence the success of marriage.
As the divorce rate rose, the length of marriages tended to decrease. One reason for this was the instability of early marriages that had been forced by unwanted pregnancy. This trend changed during the 1990s. The prevalence of marriages after some period of premarital cohabitation and dissolution of some of these relationships before marriage led to a drastic decrease in the number of early divorces (after less than five years of marriage) from 35 percent in the 1980s to 13 percent at the close of the twentieth century. Accordingly, the average duration of a marriage at divorce increased from nine years in 1990 to twelve in 1999.
Because marriages lasted longer before the couples divorced, the percentage of couples with children also increased during the 1990s, from 62 to 67 percent, while the average number of their children remained almost the same—1.5 per couple.