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Marriage and Family

ONS Stats reveal alarming rise in cohabiting couple families

2 September 2019

Information released recently from the Office for National Statistics has revealed a significant growth in the number of cohabiting couple families in the UK.

The stats for 2018 show that married couple families were the most common family type, at around 67% of families. Cohabiting couple families are the second-largest family time at around 18%, that’s 3.4 million families.

There has been a marked increase of cohabiting couple families of 25.8% in the last ten years. These types of families are now growing faster as a group than married couple families. People are increasingly choosing to live together before getting married, or not get married at all. Both are concerning trends.

The instability of cohabiting

The research is very clear that on average cohabiting couples live in much more unstable relationships than married couples. The odds of staying together as a couple are greatest among couples who marry before having children, regardless of the mother’s age or level of education.

This is the opposite of what much of the culture around us is saying, namely that marriage is nothing special and that you need to ‘try before you buy’, to put it crudely.

These are both lies, but unfortunately many people in our society seem to think they are true.

The reality is that cohabitation is often ambiguous with unbalanced commitment where one partner is more ‘in’ the relationship than the other. Without clear communication and common ground, instability is common and break ups are the norm.

The stability of marriage

In contrast, the decision to get married is a clear signal of mutual commitment and love to both the couple and the community around them. There is no ambiguity, no room for miscommunication, and there is a community around the couple who know where they stand and can support them through the good and the bad.

This explanation from Harry Benson is helpful in noting the reason why cohabiting is so unstable compared to marriage:

“The best explanation for why cohabitation is so unstable is that couples tend to move in before establishing a clear mutual plan for the future. The order is largely reversed. In this case, constraints come before dedication, so that couples risk becoming stuck with the same trappings as marriage but without the clarity of commitment. Fragile relationships that might otherwise never have got going then drift onward in hope of improvement, locked in by the sheer inertia of living together.”

A reasonable response

These ONS statistics seem to show that sections of our society are losing confidence in marriage.

As Christians we need to champion marriage to those who are losing faith in it, to extol its benefits and explain why a public commitment to one another is beautiful and precious. We also need to continue to encourage our Government to back marriage and break down the financial and cultural barriers to it.

There is lots of work to be done in this area but one recent encouraging step is a review into weddings, commissioned by the former Prime Minister Theresa May, which could make it easier to get married. Ironically, whilst our society has moved to thinking too little of marriage, it has also moved to thinking too much of weddings. A wedding is just the first step on a lifetime journey and any move from the Government to make it easier to get married must be a welcome change.

Find out more

As part of our commitment to support marriage, CARE has been publishing annual reports looking at the tax burden in the UK on different family types. Our research shows that one-earner married couples with two children on the average wage face a significantly higher tax burden than the rest of the OECD. We championed a marriage tax break and continue to campaign for the existing one to be increased from its current level of just 10%. The fact marriage is financially unattractive is one underlying factor behind the growing trend towards the instability of cohabitation.


Marriage and Family

Strong families are foundational to a healthy society. Marriages too are vital, representing the gold standard of commitment. CARE is committed to upholding both.

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