UK families among most unstable in the developed world

The United Kingdom has among the highest rates of family instability in the developed world, a study by an international group of academics has

The United Kingdom has among the highest rates of family instability in the developed world, a study by an international group of academics has found.

Three in five (62 per cent) British children born to unmarried parents living together experience family breakdown before they hit their teens.

In contrast, only 45 per cent of American children, 15 per cent of Belgian children and six per cent of Spanish children born to cohabiting parents undergo the same seismic shift in their family dynamic by the age of 12.

Almost without exception across the world, cohabiting couples are more unstable than married couples, even when they have children. In the UK, children born to cohabiting parents are 94 per cent more likely to see their parents break up before age 12, compared to children born to married parents.

Even among married couples, the UK has some of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. A third (32 per cent) of British 12 year olds whose parents were married when they were born have experienced family breakdown. In Austria the figure is nine per cent and in France eleven per cent.

The study also blasts the myth that the stability of marriage is due to a higher level of education among those who choose to marry. In the overwhelming majority of countries, the least educated married couples are still far less likely to break up than the most educated cohabiting parents.

In the UK, four in ten marriages (39 per cent) among the least educated end in divorce during the twelve years following childbirth, but over half (53 per cent) of the most educated cohabiting couples split up during the same timeframe.

Commenting on the study, Bradford Wilcox, Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and co-author of the report, said: “We know that children thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers. This study provides fresh evidence that cohabitation is less likely to deliver such family stability to children, compared to marriage.”

Laurie DeRose, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and collaborator on the report commented: “We find no evidence in this report to support the idea that as births to cohabiting parents become more common, as they have in the United Kingdom, that marriage and cohabitation resemble each other in terms of stability for children. On average, marriage is associated with more family stability for children across the globe—even in countries where it is in retreat.”

Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman and founder of Marriage Foundation, welcomed the report. “The findings of this study are yet another loud wake-up call about the lack of regard we have in the UK towards the vital importance of family stability. How many more surveys and reports do we need before government puts this problem at the very top of the social justice agenda?

“No doubt our all-consuming obsession with personal development, self-reliance and career aspiration benefits the economy, but is anyone listening to the children or feeling their pain?

“They are the massive losers when families are unstable. But we all also pick up the pieces with all the social problems which this instability generates and which cost billions every year to deal with. All the well-publicised problems including child mental health problems are hugely exacerbated by family instability.

“In forty years working in the family courts as a barrister, then as a judge, the one thing the children want above all else and in virtually every case is to see their parents and family reunited. Their deepest longings are sadly and invariably ignored.

“This research is yet further justification for continuing to champion marriage over all other arrangements leading to the birth and upbringing of children. Across the globe the children of married couples fare best. This is not because married parents, in some unspecified way, are more skilful as parents but because married parents are more much more likely to be stable as a couple. Stability is the name of the game; stability in a child’s life is the number one key factor over all others.

“We are facing a family breakdown epidemic in this country, the highest rates of family collapse on record ever.

“This week is Marriage Week. This research shows it should be a crucial week for every couple with children to address the state of their relationship and take whatever steps necessary to guarantee its survival for the sake of the whole family.”


Notes to editors
For media inquiries please contact Beatrice Timpson on 07803 726977.
For interviews, please contact Harry Benson on 07515 699187.

About Marriage Foundation
Marriage Foundation was founded by Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court Judge, moved by his personal experience in 40 years as a barrister and judge specialising in family law. The Foundation seeks to improve public understanding of marriage reduce the numbers of people drawn into the family justice system – some 500,000 children and adults each year.

Marriage Foundation has highlighted the crisis of family breakdown. Their research has found that a child born today only has a 50 per cent chance of living with both parents by the time they reach fifteen.

Foundation research has also found that 93 percent of parents who stay together until their child’s fifteenth birthday are married.

A source of statistics on marriage, cohabitation, commitment, divorce and family breakdown can be found on the Marriage Foundation website.

About Marriage Week
Marriage Week is an annual event for couples to take time to pause and learn some new skills to take their marriages from good to very good. The wedding day is only the start and all marriages can get better and better with each passing year.

Marriage Week UK is coordinated by Marriage Foundation – the national champion for marriage. It is widely supported by charities and individuals who believe that healthy marriages bring benefits for all of society and should be encouraged and supported wherever possible.

Marriage Week is a primary preventative campaign which seeks to highlight the benefits of healthy marriage to society, media and governments, whilst seeking to educate and inform couples regarding the benefits of an ever improving relationship, through largely local events, and media coverage.

Marriage Week UK runs both through local events put on by marriage champions and churches across the country, and through national events coordinated by Marriage Foundation. Please see the events page to see how you can get involved.

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