Over the last two decades or so, the increase in individuals choosing to live together without marrying has been the most dominant feature of family life in England and Wales.

Since the early 1990s, marriage and divorce have both generally been in decline. Just over half of all people in England and Wales over the age of 16 last year were married.

Cohabitation, meanwhile, has become much more common and, according to new figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), now accounts for one-in-eight of all couples (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/populationestimatesbymaritalstatusandlivingarrangements/2002to2015).

Whilst it would be easy to interpret the data as demonstrating the anti-marriage sentiments of the population, I wish to strike a note of caution.

Just as no marriage or divorce is like another, no single narrative explains the state of flux in which British households currently find themselves.

It’s a view which my colleagues and I have formed from our voluminous and varied caseload, and it doesn’t just include instances in which marriages have imploded but also the way in which new and continuing partnerships – married or not – are being framed by those involved.

That reflects not only how attitudes differ from previous generations as to how couples regulate and formalise their relationships but how subtle shifts in the respective preferences of men and women influence patterns in remarriage and cohabitation.

For instance, one of the other recent trends has been the so-called ‘silver split’ – divorce involving middle-aged couples, frequently after their children have grown up and left the family home.

My colleagues and I have noticed something with echoes in the new ONS figures; namely, that men are more likely to remarry after their marriage ends. We have been told on numerous occasions that it’s down to their feeling in need of emotional or practical support provided by a spouse.

Women, on the other hand, seem more emboldened. They have a greater life expectancy than their male counterparts and are more willing to assert their independence instead of spending their remaining years in an unhappy marriage.

They are also more likely to have the means to support themselves, either because of divorce settlements which are based on more generous terms than those of previous generations or due to their professional advancement.

Having been able to stand on their own two feet, they are also more careful about compromising that position by entering a new marriage.

Doing so could result in their assets being claimed by a spouse on divorce and, as a result, jeopardise their future and that of their children. It’s one reason why prenuptial agreements are popular among women who choose to tie the knot for a second or even a third time.

Leaving aside the different factors contributing to this particular gender gap, it’s possible to see why the perceived headlong rush into cohabitation might not actually be the case for all.

Among quite a few age groups - including those aged between 30 to 34 (roughly the average age for marriages in England and Wales) and the middle-aged individuals who are also driving ‘silver divorces’ - marriage is actually on the increase.

Living together without marrying is also less popular year-on-year for those people in a range of age groups who’ve been married before.

That would seem to indicate a residual recognition of marriage’s virtues - if not on the grounds of romance, then certainly of the practical benefits compared to the lack of provision for unmarried couples who subsequently separate.

The dynamic in the British family home has certainly shifted but, in my experience, it’s always worth taking a closer look to see what’s really going on rather than taking simple explanations and statistics at face value.


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