By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, DEC. 2, 2011 ( The popularity of cohabitation as an alternative or a preliminary step to marriage continues to grow. Data published this week by the British Office for National Statistics for England and Wales confirms the trend.

In 2010 only 48.2% of the adult population of England and Wales were married. Of the rest, 35.6% were single, 9.3% were divorced, and 7% were widowed. It is estimated around one in six people are cohabitating.

"One of the main reasons for the decrease in the married population and the increase in the single population is the growth of cohabitation by unmarried couples,” the report stated.

Earlier this year cohabitation in England was examined in a study published by the Jubilee Centre, a group that describes itself as a Christian social reform organization.

In “Cohabitation: An Alternative to Marriage?,” authors John Hayward and Guy Brandon said that although the rise in rates of cohabitation is now stabilizing, an increasing proportion of these relationships do not lead to marriage but end in separation.

Their study was based on data from the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study that allows a year-by-year comparison of trends. The data covers 14,103 households and 22,265 adults.

Major changes in family relationships started back in the 60s and 70s and by the early 80s cohabitation had supplanted marriage as the most popular form of first relationship. Since 2000, a scant 15% of couples have married rather than cohabited as a first relationship.

Cohabitation has undergone significant changes in recent decades. In the 80s no less than 81% of people cohabitating married their first live-in partner. By the year 2000 this had declined to 64%. Nevertheless, the great majority -- 87% -- still marry one of their first two live-in partners, but this is down from 95% in the 80s.


There is also an increase in the numbers of cohabitating couples who have dependent children. In 2001 there were 808,000 households with a cohabiting couple and children. By 2010 this had increased to 1.07 million.

Given this data, not surprisingly in the last few decades the average age of first marriages has risen, from 23.1 in 1981 to 30 in 2009 for women and from 25.4 to 32.1 for men.

The average age of first cohabitation has also increased, by more than three years for both men and women in this same period of time. So couples are cohabitating later than they used to and marrying even later still.

Another development is an increase in long-term cohabitation. In the early 70s only 25% of couples lived together for more than 3 years. This contrasts with the current 50% rate. Moreover, around 25% now live together for more than 6.5 years before separation or marriage.

Overall, the duration of cohabiting relationships has roughly doubled over the last 40years. An analysis of the data shows, however, that this is mainly due to an increase in the length of the shortest cohabitations.

According to the authors, couples' perceived reasons for cohabiting are changing. Forty years ago cohabitation was more likely to be viewed as a temporary step prior to marriage.

<p>Changing attitudes meant that by the 80s separation was more accepted, and this not only led to higher divorce numbers but also to more separations of cohabitating couples.

The authors conclude that currently cohabitation is increasingly considered as a lifestyle choice in its own right, rather than principally as a prelude to marriage.


The study also looked at the effects of cohabitation on future marriages. Around 55% of marriages that started in the early 1980s in which at least one partner had lived with someone else have ended in divorce or separation. This compares with around 45% of couples who had only lived with each other and 40% for those who had not lived together at all.

"For all marriages since 1980 prior and previous cohabitation quickly emerge as being associated with greater risk of separation and divorce," the report concluded.

The damage caused by cohabitation increases when it has been with someone who is not the eventual spouse. Prior cohabitation of a married couple is associated with a 15% greater risk of divorce. Previous cohabitation with other partners leads to a much greater 45% risk.

The news of increased cohabitation comes when again and again research has shown a stable married family is the best environment in which to raise children.

This was confirmed in research published last month by the federal government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Researchers  Lixia Qu and Ruth Weston, a Nov. 16 press release explained, analyzed data on almost 5,000 children across Australia, from the time the children were 4-5 years old until they were 8-9 years old.

They found that children of married couples have higher levels of learning and social and emotional development than children of de facto parents or single mothers. Confirmation, yet again, that much more needs to be done to protect and strengthen marriage.