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Cohabitation versus Marriage - a view on a Christian Think-Tank Report

Date:23 FEB 2010

Article by Penny Booth

A Christian think tank has produced a (relatively short) report on cohabitation, Cohabitation in the 21st Century , stating that the 'survival rate' for cohabiting relationships is substantially shorter than that of marital relationships and that there is a worrying issue here for the financial implications. What a surprise!

Dr John Hayward and Dr Guy Brandon, the authors of the report, have used thousands of cases drawn from the British Household Panel Survey, Consolidated Marital, Cohabitation and Fertility Histories, which contain data up to 2006/7. The data suggests that cohabitation is generally short-lived and that a mean of three years for 'coupledom' is usual, with almost half separating before more than the just the second 'anniversary'. This, in turn, suggests that cohabitation tends to be (at least among those of the population in the statistics used from the British Household Panel Survey) a 'less stable form' of relationship. According to the report, not even one quarter of first cohabitations last five years, and only one in nineteen lasts over a decade. The whole point of cohabiting for many, though, is that it IS easier to get out of than is a marriage or civil partnership. The latter point is less worrying. Stability can be masked by a marriage difficult to stay in, yet even more difficult to leave. The possession of the piece of paper is not, per se, the deciding factor, I think.

The situation when children are taken into account is rather worrying, assuming that we take the statistics in the report as being a representative survey of the country (and there were rather a lot of them...). There is a drop over the last fifteen years in the number of couples still cohabiting by the time their first born is 16, yet over the same period the report tells us that marriage has become a more stable family background for children. So, as a comparison, married couples are now more than ten times as likely to stay together until their child is 16. The question might be, then, why do cohabiting couples WITH children not stay together? I await someone telling me the possible answers.

One of the conclusions to the report is that under the circumstances revealed by the study, the Law Commission should take care not to 'encourage' cohabitation by making provision for its breakdown because by cohabiting the serious risk of separation and resultant cost will be a burden on taxpayers. Public and private (financial) costs count, for sure, and these should be taken into account as a matter of policy, but I am not sure which came first - the chicken or the egg. The point of reforming the law of cohabitation provision is to provide for those who suffer a loss as a result of cohabitation and its ending where provision is not currently suitable by comparison with the legally-recognised situations in marriage and civil partnership.

Perhaps if we look at possible reform as a matter of 'policy' and the provision as 'encouragement' we would gain a different picture. Rather than 'encouragement' any reform of provision in the aftermath of cohabitation breakdown should be premised on the basis of protection, of making provision where none existed before - just because there is provision will not be looked upon as 'encouragement' to cohabit, I think.

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.