Increasing Cohabitation - a concern?

By John Hayward 17 Jun 2010


I have just taken a media inquiry about updated marital status population projections published today by the Office for National Statistics. The report predicts that the proportion of adults who are married will drop from 49 per cent to 42 per cent over the coming quarter of a century (2008-2033), the proportion never married will increase from 35 to 43 per cent, while the number cohabiting will increase from 2.3 million to 3.8 million (a 65 per cent increase over 25 years).

These estimates are wholly consistent with the analysis of marriage and cohabitation trends published by the Jubilee Centre earlier this year. The following chart (previously unpublished) shows the change in proportion of first live-in relationship types over recent decades:

The ONS expects the first marriage and remarriage rates to continue falling until 2018 and then remain constant. One might suggest that they couldn't get much lower! And yet, the overwhelming majority of young people say that they want to get married (including almost four out of five cohabiting couples) and more than three out of five cohabiting couples end up tying the knot.

So, should we be concerned was the question. In a post-modern world, it would be nice to be able to say 'no.' However, the truth is, these trends have huge personal, social and economic consequences for us all. Already three in ten births are to cohabiting couples, but cohabitation is a very unstable form of relationship: the average lasts less than two years (23 months); less than one in five lasts more than five years; and half of all cohabiting couples who have children will separate by the time the child is five years old (compared with just 6 per cent of married couples who have children). Even cohabiting couples who get married fare much worse than couples whose first experience of a live-in relationship is marriage: the risk of divorce increases by 60 per cent for couples who have previously lived together, and the marriage of such couples lasts an average of four years less than their non-cohabiting peers (7.5 years compared with 11.5 years).

This evidence runs counter to the popular idea that cohabitation allows couples to get to know each other in a marriage-like relationship and therefore to decide whether or not they are suited to marriage. At least part of the reason might well be that couples who initially 'try each other on for size' are developing habits of non-commitment. In contrast, couples whose first experience of a live-in relationship is marriage are developing (and possibly reinforcing existing) habits of commitment. Just as some people develop habits of perseverence and patience in their approach to work and life goals, while others seem always to give up at the first sign of trouble, so too might it be with relationships.

Even if we only consider the financial impact on society, this significantly higher rate of family breakdown currently costs each taxpayer £1,350 per year--or £42 billion: more than a quarter of the current budget deficit, and greater than the expected impact of Tuesday's emergency budget on the public finances. At a time when government departments are facing cuts of 25 per cent to their budgets, we cannot afford the present annual bill of £42 billion, let alone one that looks set to climb considerably higher. Yet, if the number of cohabiting couples is set to increase by two-thirds, then presumably the number of births to cohabiting couples will also increase, as will the number of children then growing up in single-parent households and struggling against all the odds that indicate greater risk of negative outcomes, whether measured in terms of education, housing, health and social care, tax and nenefits, or civil and criminal justice.

Here is a real opportunity for the Church, sadly all-too-often perceived to be irrelevantly wagging its moral finger, to embrace the 'Big Society' agenda and to demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ in very practical ways to those with genuine emotional needs. Whether the community of believers actually reaches out in godly concern or simply stands in judgement over those Jesus came to save, only the coming years will reveal...

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