Over the last fifty years, premarital cohabitation has become normal in our society. At the moment, there are around 3.2 million cohabiting opposite sex couples in the UK and what used to be thought of as socially shocking is now entirely acceptable. In fact, what’s considered shocking nowadays is if you question the merits of cohabiting in comparison to marriage.
Many people argue that there is no difference between a family with married parents and cohabiting parents, it’s just two adults and that’s what counts.
CARE has always argued that marriage is the gold standard for commitment and stability and that Government should promote and encourage marriage for society.
Not only does our support for marriage and the wider benefits it brings to society flow from our understanding of marriage in the bible, but also what social science tells us about marriage and cohabitation.
Cohabitation has, among many things, consistently been associated with lower levels of marital satisfaction, higher perceived marital instability, a higher divorce rate, more negative communication in marriage and lower levels of self-esteem.
Now, a new study of 11 developed countries has revealed that many cohabiting couples have serious doubts about their relationship and are less likely to see it as a vital part of their life. The Global Family and Gender Survey (GFGS) polled 16,474 adults across 11 different countries about their relationships and revealed some challenging findings for the UK.
The survey found that “the United Kingdom tops the list of relationship doubters when it comes to cohabiting parents. About 4-in-10 UK cohabiting couples with children under age 18 in the home (39%) say that in the past 12 months, they’ve had serious doubts that their relationship with their partner will last.” This is 12 percentage points higher than the share of married parents who have had serious doubts.
Respondents to the survey were asked whether they agreed with the statement, ‘My relationship with my partner is more important to me than almost anything else in my life.’ Cohabiting and married parents in the UK differ drastically on how they answered this question: “While 71% of married parents in the country believe their relationship is more important than almost anything else in life, only 54% of cohabiting parents think this about their relationship.”
These findings back up years of research that indicate cohabiting families tend to be far less stable for children than married families. Although unmarried parents make up just 20 per cent of all couples with children in the UK, they account for 51 per cent of annual family breakdown.
What is it about cohabitation that makes it so much less stable and secure, both for adults and children, than marriage?
The reality is that transitions into cohabitation are often not deliberative in nature. People slide into deeper and deeper commitment in a relationship without necessarily considering the fundamentals that make a relationship successful. These include making the decision together, having a shared sense of the future, having a common purpose, and social affirmation from friends and family.
The decision-making process about whether to marry is a very real and important one, and cohabitation is simply not a helpful vehicle for this. Unfortunately, many young people are still under the false and harmful belief that cohabitation is a good way to test their relationships.
Encouragingly, the new guidance and regulations for Relationships and Sex education requires that pupils learn about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up children. The guidance states that RSE at secondary schools “Should enable them to know what a healthy relationship looks like and what makes a good friend, a good colleague and a successful marriage.”
This is, however, only one small step made to support marriage and commitment. CARE continues to challenge the Government to back its rhetoric and deliver on promises to uphold marriage for all of society. We want to see marriage properly recognised in the tax system, properly taught in schools, properly supported in counselling and support services, and not undermined through proposed damaging divorce laws and disincentives like the couple penalty.
We are looking forward to celebrating National marriage Week on the 13th-19th May as an opportunity to uphold a distinctively Christian vision of marriage which we think is best for the whole of society.
Jonathan Williams is CARE’s Family Policy Officer
 Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect: Scott M. Stanley. University of Denver. Accessed at: https://app.box.com/s/1k256dlh4cchrkgawp0d8emzppo9l6ny
 Less Stable, Less Important: Cohabiting Families’ Comparative Disadvantage Across the Globe. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang. Access at: https://ifstudies.org/blog/less-stable-less-important-cohabiting-families-comparative-disadvantage-across-the-globe
 Benson. H, ‘Annual Family Breakdown in the UK’, Marriage Foundation, March 2017