Dr Guy Brandon
Dr Guy Brandon

Research published earlier this year by the Jubilee Centre, a leading relationships charity, has found that cohabitation serves a range of purposes and masks a wide variety of commitment levels, so cannot be considered solely as an alternative to marriage. It also offers children a significantly less stable form of family environment. The child's earliest years are a time of disproportionate risk of separation. So, by the time the child is five years old the separation rate for couples who were cohabiting when their first child was born is more than six times the rate for couples who were married. Rebecca Duffett spoke with Jubilee Centre researcher Dr Guy Brandon.

Rebecca: In the report from your research you talk about co-habitations of convenience, what do you mean by that term?

Guy: It's not just about co-habitations of convenience; it's about co-habitations of all sorts and the sort of ways that people come to live together. In some cases people are living together as an alternative to marriage, but in other cases I think it's likely that it is out of convenience. As an example, you could have a couple of professionals, maybe they live a certain distance apart and both have busy lives; whereas in the past people might have dated for longer and then got married, this is a way of spending more time together just because it takes so long to travel to see one another and they have limited time to begin with.

Rebecca: It says that 55% of these co-habitations lead to marriage, so could cohabiting be a good thing?

Guy: I think firstly its worth saying that although 55% do lead to marriage, that figure is down an awful lot in the last 30 years or so. That's down from perhaps 80 or 90% in the earlier days when co-habitation became more popular. In itself that's not a great hit rate. The other thing to say is that co-habitations that lead to marriage appear to be much more prone to divorce later on. In that respect it's not a great thing; so is it the case that cohabitation leads to divorcing marriages or is it just that the sort of people who might get divorced later on anyway are more likely to co-habit in the first place? What we're seeing is whatever the case is, there does seem to be some correlation that we need to look at.

Rebecca: Have you found any reasons for the apparent link between co-habitation and divorce?

Guy: If you have the world view that relationships are temporary, that people can and do break up then you're more likely to entertain the possibility that it will happen to you. If you do break up then that reinforces the behaviour. It's a two way street between beliefs and behaviour.

What's interesting is that if you live with just the person you marry, if that's the only co-habitation you've had then your risk of divorce is slightly higher, it's about 15% higher. If you've lived with somebody else previously and broken up with them and then start living with somebody else and marry them, your risk is up to about 45%.

Rebecca: How long are people living together?

Guy: It's interesting that over the last 30 years or so more people have been living together for longer. I think the average is something like three or four years before people get married.

I think one of the reasons that cohabitation is popular is that people have seen their parent's generation getting divorced and all the pain that causes and so they want their own relationships to work. In most cases I think co-habitation is seen as low risk, a lower form of commitment relationship, because it's easier to go your separate ways from a co-habitation than it is from a divorce. People are using it as a filtering mechanism and saying we will live together for two to three years and we will see how it goes and if this works out then we'll get married; but if it doesn't work out then I don't want to do what my parents did and so we'll just go our separate ways and it will be less messy, less painful and maybe it will work out next time.

Not all co-habitations are the same. There are people who move in relatively quickly as a matter of convenience. There are people who view it essentially as more marriage like. You need other factors to understand how stable and committed these relationships are, for example whether people have a mortgage together or a joint bank account. Those imply a degree of commitment.

Rebecca: Will these co-habitations lead to less divorce in the long run if people don't want to repeat what their parents have done?

Blue = Cohabiting at birth, Pink = Cohabiting at birth and married later, Red = married at birth
Blue = Cohabiting at birth, Pink = Cohabiting at birth and married later, Red = married at birth

Guy: The divorce rate is coming down and this appears to be one reason why, yes. The problem with it is that people are still separating. They're just separating from co-habitations instead of from marriages and it's not valid to say that they have no impact. The personal and financial impact on society of people separating from co-habitations is enormous and it really has a huge impact on people's well-being and certainly on the well-being of any children from those relationships. It affects the amount of tax everybody pays. It's not valid to say that since people are separating from co-habitations rather than from marriages, that it's ok and not something we need to worry about.