Out Of The Blue: Family Breakdown in the UK

Our new analysis of data from the UK survey Understanding Society shows that high conflict warring couples are a rarity among couples who split. The vast majority of family breakdown involves low conflict couples, who are largely indistinguishable before they split from couples that remain together. Most of this involves happy couples and therefore comes out of the blue.

Among 22,770 men and women living as a couple, only 19 of 210 (9%) married couples who split one year later, as well as 11 of 247 (4%) unmarried couples who split, could be categorised as high conflict couples who had reported quarrelling a lot in the year before the split.

In sharp contrast 60% of the married couples who split, and 80% of the cohabiting couples who split, were low conflict couples who had also reported some degree of happiness. The remainder were low conflict couples who had reported they were unhappy.

These findings are important for two reasons. (1) Previous research shows the most damaging separations to a child involve low conflict couples. (2) The remarkable lack of conflict or unhappiness immediately prior to divorce or separation suggests a great deal of family breakdown today may be a lot more salvageable than is commonly assumed.


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

Media Links

The Sunday Times, 1st November 2015

By Nicholas Hellen: “No marital tiffs last year? Then divorce looms”
The Australian, 1st November 2015
“No fight? Divorce may be looming”
The Telegraph, 3rd November 2015

By Sadie Levy Gale: “Five surprising signs you’re heading for a divorce”

Marilyn Stowe Blog, 3rd November 2015
“Most divorces sudden, Marriage Foundation claims”

Times Live, 4th November 2015
By Sadie Levy Gale: “The tell-tale signs of impending divorce”

The New Zealand Herald, 4th November 2015

By Sadie Levy Gale: “Peace in morning, couple’s warning”

Family breakdown costs £50bn a year

When couples split up, families move from one to two households. Poverty is a common outcome that affects children. Six out of ten lone parents are supported by the state compared to one out of ten couple parents. That’s where most of the £50bn is spent.

UK Among highest family breakdown in Europe

Five years ago, the UK had the highest rate of family breakdown in Europe. We’re not doing as badly today, but only because of big falls in divorce rates. Alas there’s no sign of a similar improvement among cohabitees

Lower Divorce Rates – Higher Lone Parents

Divorce rates have plummeted over the past 3 decades, but the number of lone parents has doubled in the same period. Why?… Because unmarried parents make up only one in five cohabiting parents but are responsible for one half of all family breakdown.

Stability is found in Marriage

Whereas stability is the norm if parents are married (75% stay together), it is the exception if they are not (30% stay together). As a result, among parents of teens who are still together as a couple, nine out of ten are married

Single Most Important Factor

The single most important factor in a child’s healthy development is the stable relationship of the parents. Our groundbreaking research shows that family breakdown is the #1 predictor of teenage mental health problems.

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