Marriage does not make relationships between parents more stable

07 July 2010

Marriage per se may not be the most important cause of stable relationships when children are young, according to new research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

This casts doubt on the government’s aim of promoting marriage, rather than the factors leading to marriage, in order to decrease the rate of parental separation.

The IFS analysis of data from the Millennium Cohort Study shows that while cohabiting parents are more likely to split up than married ones, there is little evidence that simply encouraging more people to get married would result in fewer couples splitting up.

Parents who are cohabiting when their child is born are three times more likely to split up by the time their child is five than married parents (27% compared to 9%). However they are also typically younger, less well off, less likely to own their own homes, have fewer educational qualifications and are less likely to plan their pregnancies than married people. Once these differences between the two groups are accounted for, the difference in the likelihood of separation almost disappears (falling to 2 percentage points).

The IFS analysis shows that relationship stability is mainly determined not by marriage but by other factors such as age, education, occupation and income, and delaying and planning pregnancy. These factors are also influential in whether people choose to marry or not. So while married couples have more stable relationships than couples who cohabit, this is not simply because they are married, but because of the other characteristics they have that lead to marriage.

“The evidence suggests that much of the difference in relationship stability between married and cohabiting parents is due to pre-existing differences between the kinds of people who get married before they have children, compared to those that cohabit.” said Ellen Greaves, research economist at the IFS.

Download Cohabitation, marriage and relationship stability by Alissa Goodman and Ellen Greaves, IFS 2010 (PDF)

More information on this project is available in the Children and families section