Annual family breakdown in the UK

Cohabiting couples now account for over half of family breakdown despite making up only a fifth of parents, a report by Marriage Foundation has found.

Previous Marriage Foundation has shown around one per cent (1.3 per cent) of married parents split in the course of a year, compared to over five per cent (5.3 per cent) of cohabiting parents.

The number of cohabiting couples has reached almost 1.3 million (1.26 million), up from 950,000 in 2006, with the number of married parents relatively stable on 4.8 million.

The increase in the proportion of cohabiting couples means they have now overtaken married couples in the numbers that split up.

Harry Benson, Research Director of Marriage Foundation, commented: “The great paradox of UK family statistics is that family breakdown has been going up for years while divorce has been going down for years. The reason – as repeatedly shown by Marriage Foundation research – is the trend away from relatively stable marriage and toward relatively unstable cohabitation.

“The problem is not divorce. Recent research from the Social Trends Institute has shown that unmarried cohabiting parents are more likely to split up than married parents throughout the developed world and across education groups.

“UK cohabiting parents are the most unstable of the lot.

“Our new finding reveals that we have crossed a watershed. Cohabiting parents, despite being only one fifth of couples, now account for the majority of family breakdown.

“The government’s own research shows that children not living with both natural parents are more likely to have health and education problems and a lot more likely to experience poverty. The cost to the taxpayer of picking up the pieces is at least £48 billion per year.

“We have sleepwalked into an epidemic of family breakdown that already affects nearly half of our teenagers. How much more research do we need before we heed the wake-up call to treat unmarried cohabitation as a public health issue?”

Sir Paul Coleridge, founder and chairman of Marriage Foundation, commented:

“Whenever family breakdown statistics are discussed people assume it means married couples divorcing, but that is not the real mischief.

“The real mischief is that separating cohabiting as opposed to divorcing couples are four times more likely to split up. This is the driver of the national tragedy of mass family breakdown.

“The divorce statistics are stable and have changed very little over the last ten years. On the other hand the statistics for cohabiting splitting up get relentlessly worse, year by year.

“The Government needs both to understand the distinction and have the courage to draw loud attention to the difference in outcomes between married and cohabiting couples. It must have the courage to pour resources into helping couples understand about the importance of commitment as a real aid to stability in relationships.

“If we could hit these figures what a difference it would make to so many children. In the end marriage is not about a moral argument but an outcomes argument. When we all understand that things may start to improve.”


Here you can download the Research Briefing Paper as a PDF and the Press Release where it is available.

Media Links

Mail Online, 1 April 2017
By Rod Ardehali: ‘National tragedy of mass family breakdown’: More families with unmarried parents are splitting up than married ones for the first time

The Telegraph, 1 April
By Olivia Rudgard, Social Affairs Correspondent: More unmarried couples with children breaking up than married couples for first time, ONS figures show

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