“Cohabiting parents now account for majority of family breakdown” is the screaming headline from the Marriage Foundation. It has analysed figures from the Office for National Statistics and revealed that cohabiting couples now account for over half of family relationship breakdowns despite making up only a fifth of parents.

Harry Benson, Research Director of the Marriage Foundation, commented: “The great paradox of UK family statistics is that family breakdown has been going up for years while divorce has been going down for years. The reason – as repeatedly shown by Marriage Foundation research – is the trend away from relatively stable marriage and towards relatively unstable cohabitation.

The problem is not divorce. Recent research from the Social Trends Institute has shown that unmarried cohabiting parents are more likely to split up than married parents throughout the developed world and across education groups. UK cohabiting parents are the most unstable of the lot. Our new finding reveals that we have crossed a watershed.”

Sir Paul Coleridge, Founder and Chairman of the Marriage Foundation, commented: “Whenever family breakdown statistics are discussed, people assume it means married couples divorcing, but that is not the real mischief. The real mischief is that separating cohabiting, as opposed to divorcing, couples are four times more likely to split up. This is the driver of the national tragedy of mass family breakdown.”

What should be done?
The Government has been under pressure from family lawyers for years to change the law to provide cohabitees with basic legal rights upon separation; but the Government has more pressing issues to deal with. What many cohabitees do not realise is that there is no such thing as “common law husband and wife”. Therein lies the rub.

Why are cohabitees up against it when it comes to separation? The law relating to cohabitees is different from the law relating to divorcing couples. What is more, the civil process (which applies to cohabitees) is more expensive and the rules that apply can lead to uncertain and unpredictable results.

Mediation, of course, could help a cohabiting couple arrive at a solution which takes into account the separating couple’s needs and values. It aims to let them get on with their lives without long and costly litigation.