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A closer look at divorce, cohabitation overseas

This is the last in a series about understanding cohabitation and its relationship to marriage and divorce.

Q: What is the status of cohabitation, marriage and divorce in Great Britain and Australia?

A: According to the Office of National Statistics in Britain, the trend for getting married is decreasing. Married couples account for less than half of the population. As marriage rates decline, cohabitation is increasing.

British couples are divorcing at later ages. The most common ages for divorce were 35 years in 1971, 40 years in 1991, 52 years in 2009, and 53 years in 2010. As fewer adults are choosing marriage, the divorce rate is dropping. The number of divorces in 2009 was the lowest since 1974. The ONS reported fewer divorced men than women overall because men were more likely than women to remarry.

One of the major reasons for the decrease in the married population in Britain and the increase in single persons is the growth in unmarried, cohabiting couples. The number of adults who marry has been decreasing since the 1970s.

Surveys reveal young couples still wish to marry but do not have the money to buy homes and cars. As there are increases in unemployment and increases in the cost of living, young adults turn to cohabitation.

A growing number of British couples in their 60s are divorcing, even though the overall divorce rate is decreasing. From 2007 to 2009, there was a rise of 4 percent in divorces in those adults older than 60 years, whereas the overall divorce rate for those same years of 2007 to 2009 dropped more than 11 percent.

Expert Ros Altmann speculates baby boomers are divorcing after their children leave. Older adults are living longer, redefining their lives and starting over.

A report from the Institute for the Study of Civil Society in Britain released information on how cohabitation and marriage differ. The rate of cohabitation has risen from 5 percent in the mid-60s to 70 percent in the 1990s. British research reported the longer and more often persons cohabit, the more apt they are to divorce later. Cohabiters have higher rates of unfaithfulness than married couples. They also have more cases of depression than married couples. Cohabiters have higher rates of domestic violence.

In British cohabitation, couples with children are more apt to break up than cohabiters without children. More than 20 percent of British children are born to cohabiting parents. Only about a third of these children will grow up with their own parents. Cohabiting couples often break up and then marry others, and are more likely to divorce.

Children living with cohabiting parents are less well off than those who live with married parents. When cohabiting parents break up, the children are less likely to maintain contact with their fathers than children of divorced parents.

The highest risk of abuse is for children living in step-families who cohabit rather than marry. Visiting boyfriends or live-in boyfriends are more likely than biological fathers or married step-fathers to abuse children physically or sexually. These men are also more apt to kill children.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, in Australia the marriage rate for ages 20 to 29 years has been decreasing since the 1970s. In past years, cohabiters tended to be poor, unable to get divorces from estranged spouses, or persons who were the avant-garde. More recent trends are for young persons to become independent longer before marrying and to enter cohabiting relationships for sexual activity. The rate of cohabitation before marriage has increased, as has the rate of divorce. Post-divorce cohabitation also has increased.

There now appears to be social approval for cohabitation, according to the Australian Institute's Family Formation Project 1991. The research reported only 18 percent of respondents said it is not all right for couples to live together without planning to marry later. In cohabitation relationships, 25 percent lasted one year, 50 percent ended by two years, and 75 percent by four years. Some of these ended in marriage. Those persons younger than 30 had higher percentages of cohabiting prior to marriage.

Young women cohabited earlier than men. Most young adults entered cohabitation between 21 and 24 years of age. Cohabitors had less traditional family values. They were more egalitarian in attitudes toward sex roles and the resulting division of household tasks. They tended to be less religious and more likely to come from urban areas.

In the data from the Australian Institute Family Formation Project, there were differences between men and women who had cohabited. Men believed cohabitation enabled them to keep their independence, cost them less and involved less commitment than marriage. Women seemed to have more romantic and more emotionally dependent attitudes toward cohabitation.

Reasons given for cohabiting in the survey were that those involved were too young to marry, their relationships too unstable to marry, and they were not committed enough for marriage. Others viewed cohabiting as part of the courtship leading to marriage.

In Australia, those in cohabitation are still a smaller percentage of the population. These relationships vary greatly. Couples cohabit for emotional, financial and pragmatic reasons. There is variation in the degree of commitment and the intention to marry.

Both the culture and the general community are increasingly accepting of cohabitation. In the actual cohabiting unions, the majority lived together most of the time, were sexually faithful, shared the cost of housing and bought things together. About half of cohabiters shared bank accounts, but only a third had plans to have children.

Australia is not changing as rapidly as other industrialized nations.

The patterns of their demographic changes related to marriage, divorce and cohabitation are similar to many other western nations, as well as Britain and the United States.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.