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Saving stable family life

Stable family life is a crucial factor in maintaining social stability and the statistics of family breakdown are deeply worrying. If current trends continue, the Marriage Foundation warns that children born in the UK this year have only a 50/50 chance of being with both their parents by their 15th birthday and this can have serious consequences, especially if the breakup means household poverty and stress for the remaining parent.

Unless the separated parents remain cordial and both conscientiously care for their offspring the latter’s own relationships in later life may suffer. Their world has been turned upside down, they live with divided loyalties and may even worry that they were the cause of the breakdown. The result can be emotional and result in behavioural problems later in life.

The Marriage Foundation identifies the increasing popularity of cohabitation as the main driver of family breakdown. In 1996 there were 1.5million cohabiting couples. In 2016 there were 3.3 million and they predict that half of today’s 20 year olds will choose to cohabit rather than marry. The average length of a cohabiting relationship is only 2 years and nine months. They say cohabiting parents constitute 21% of all couples with dependent children but account for 51% of all family breakdowns. The perceived cost of marrying appears to be one reason for this because 87% of those in the higher income groups still marry but only 24% in the lower income bracket. Couples who marry before having children are more likely to stay together and their marriage can give their children greater self-esteem, potentially influencing their future life chances (Benson & James 2016, British Household Panel Survey).

The Marriage Foundation has tried to identify the cause of family breakdown and found that it is not necessarily high conflict in the relationship. Only 9% of couples splitting up have argued a lot in the year before separating. 27% of the couples they surveyed said they had just drifted apart, perhaps spending more time on social media like single people rather than spending quality time together on a regular basis. “Mend it don’t end it’ is the Foundation’s advice -find a baby sitter and have a regular evening out together.

A major problem for the Marriage Foundation is the changing public attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation. The British Social Attitudes Report found in 2007/8 that 66% of people think there is little difference socially between being married and living together. 48% thought that living together with a partner is just as strong a commitment as getting married. That is not borne out in the law. Cohabiting couples have no rights as “common law” spouses. In fact there is no such thing as a common law marriage. This can mean that the partner left with any children of the failed relationship can struggle with serious poverty, especially if they gave up work to have the children.

For the sake of all those involved, the couples, their children and the social stability of the nation, what can be done about this serious matter? The simplistic answer is that the Government should act but how will politicians change public opinion and persuade couples to stay together. David Cameron tried in 2016, despite opposition within the Coalition. but the sums involved were too small to shift public opinion. If the politicians cannot do that who can? Might the churches and other faith communities engage in long term campaigns to make a compelling case for stable marriage, including active support for couples experiencing problems, not least to save children from the consequences of family breakdown?

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