Cohabitation drives family breakdown, campaigners claim

Couple talkingCohabitation is the key driver of family breakdown, the Marriage Foundation has claimed.

In a new report, the campaign group, founded by High Court judge Sir Paul Coleridge, said the “stability of marriage has remained largely unchanged” in recent decades, with the most pronounced risk of divorce in the first years of the union.

“…virtually all of the change in divorce rates amongst couples marrying since the 1960s has taken place during the first five to ten years of marriage.”

The Foundation added:

“…despite all of the social trends and changes of the last fifty years – the stability of marriage has remained largely unchanged. The contribution of married couples to family breakdown thus relies entirely on the relative stability of couples during their early years of marriage.”

Cohabitation, meanwhile, has increased dramatically, fuelling the breakdown of families.

“Combining new data on family breakdown from Understanding Society with household data from ONS, further new research from Marriage Foundation shows that cohabiting parents now account for 19% of couples with dependent children yet 50% of family breakdown. The key driver of family breakdown today is therefore not the failure of marriages but the failure of unmarried cohabitations.”

The report calls on the government “to attempt to reverse the trend away from marriage by distinguishing, encouraging, promoting and incentivising marriage. “

Its suggestions include using the terms “married” and “living together as if married” on government forms, saying:

“The current conflation of categories, as if they are the same, helps perpetuate the bogus myth of “common law marriage”, a legal status that has never existed in English law and thus convince young unmarried couples that they have similar rights to married couples if they split up.”

The report criticises government plans to introduce tax breaks for married couples in 2015.

“…this general tax break for married couples is poorly targeted, further complicates the tax system, … and potentially undermines marriage in the long run because of the derisory net amount accruing per couple. Nobody marries for £3.85 a week.”

Instead, it claims, the government should the tackle the “couple penalty”, which can see parents of a single child receiving up to £7,000 in additional tax credits if they live apart.

”By introducing an additional child benefit involving £000s – not £00s – per year and targeting this only at married mothers with a first child aged under three, the government would be spending much the same money [as the marriage tax break] but with a far simpler policy that also has a realistic chance of changing family outcomes. Such policy would counter the bizarre “couple penalty” that disincentivises family formation and marriage in particular. It would also incentivise precisely the group most at risk of family breakdown – namely unmarried parents with children under three – to get married and thereby improve their odds of staying together, which is exactly what many will want to do anyway.”

The Foundation’s report was issued in response to the Family Stability Review, a recently launched government initiative to “assess evidence on measures to support family stability and make recommendations on future policy”.

So, no mention then, of introducing a much needed cohabitation law into the mix. Why not level the playing field? Why not make people think twice about the obligations they will incur by leaving a cohabitant relationship too? How many solicitors just this last week will have seen a woman with children at the end of a cohabitation fearful of her future, wondering where she will live and how she will support herself, having invested many years in the ultimately fruitless relationship? And how many will have seen wealthy men who know their partners have brought up their children, leaving them free to earn, and who can now leave cohabiting relationships with the vast majority of their wealth still intact? I have seen both.

Shame on the government for its continued refusal to acknowledge that these families need justice too. Doesn’t every family regardless of shape or size deserve justice before the law? But as I’ve pointed out before, this is a government which has already removed access to legal aid and lawyers for most people, so they probably aren’t keen to add to the clamour of litigants in person banging on the courtroom doors.

Far better to pretend they don’t exist.

Photo by Renee Barron via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

5 comments

Anonymous - January 21, 2014 at 2:53pm

Government meddling in family affairs can never be anything but suspicious and linked to money. The greatest thing for families would be if the government just stopped intervening in people’s affairs altogether. The less invasive legislation there is, the better. Coleridge knows that the real reason driving breakdown is that fathers are not valued, but he seems to lack the honesty to say so.

Andrew - January 21, 2014 at 5:57pm

Actually, he does: all this talk of married mothers. If he said married couples it would be marginally less offensive.

Tristan - January 21, 2014 at 8:46pm

Children are being raised any old (or new) way these days and that situation will remain as long as social policy and divorce law disadvantage marriage and discriminate against men.

Luke - January 28, 2014 at 2:05am

I disagree with so much of this it’s hard to know where to begin – but I’ll have a go 🙂

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“…despite all of the social trends and changes of the last fifty years – the stability of marriage has remained largely unchanged. The contribution of married couples to family breakdown thus relies entirely on the relative stability of couples during their early years of marriage.”
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I was going to write my own response but John Bolch (who I sometimes disagree with) sums it up very well:

“We have, of course, been here many times before, always forgetting that the ‘type’ of couples who marry are the type who are more likely to stay together, and that the act of signing a marriage certificate will not make a jot of difference to the longevity of a relationship.”

I agree – and the fact that the marriage rate has dropped dramatically and couples are still divorcing at the same rate shows that the strongest type of marriages (i.e. the people who are still getting married) are in fact much less successful than they used to be – so Sir Paul Coleridge’s argument is completely invalidated !

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“The report calls on the government “to attempt to reverse the trend away from marriage by distinguishing, encouraging, promoting and incentivising marriage.”
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This is effectively nothing more than a demand for a back door bachelor tax.

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“So, no mention then, of introducing a much needed cohabitation law into the mix. Why not level the playing field? Why not make people think twice about the obligations they will incur by leaving a cohabitant relationship too?”
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Yes, let’s force cohabitees to remain in abject misery like many married people – why should cohabitees have all the fun ?

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“How many solicitors just this last week will have seen a woman with children at the end of a cohabitation fearful of her future, wondering where she will live and how she will support herself, having invested many years in the ultimately fruitless relationship?”
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This is a one-eyed view, how is the relationship not ‘ultimately fruitless’ for the man ? He’ll be on his own because he won’t get custody and he’ll be paying child support.

If the woman wants the man’s assets then fair enough but this should be arranged up front in a binding agreement – no agreement no relationship – the only reason nobody pushes for these to be mandatory is that there is no gravy train for any party in doing so.

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“And how many will have seen wealthy men who know their partners have brought up their children, leaving them free to earn, and who can now leave cohabiting relationships with the vast majority of their wealth still intact?”
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Well earning money is an underrated skill and they should leave with the vast majority of their wealth intact, unless there is a contract agreement made otherwise.
Child support will be payable but relationships are not supposed to be a leech’s charter !

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“Shame on the government for its continued refusal to acknowledge that these families need justice too. Doesn’t every family regardless of shape or size deserve justice before the law?”
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Not at all, there is no shame here, justice is being done – you have to be wilfully ignorant not to know now about the fact that there is no common law marriage – it is in the papers every day.
Of course all that could be solved with compulsory binding agreements being required in order to cohabit – but as I mentioned before – this is only good for the general public, there is no gravy train attached so no drive to get it done.

Andrew - January 28, 2014 at 11:19am

If people choose to cohabit without the commitment to each other that marriage involves, that is their choice, Marilyn, and it is not the business of the law to pretend they did not make that choice.

When the relationship ends with no claims against each other that is justice before the law. It’s not how a marriage would end but cohabitation is not marriage.

The man will also have invested years in the relationship, and believe it or not for many men when a relationship ends they too experience grief and loss and a sense of waste. There is no call to make things worse by calling upon them to “honour” the “commitment” into which neither of them chose to enter.

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