Cohabitees more likely to separate

Introduction: UAntwerp scientists carried out in-depth study of ’invisible wave of separations’ and conclude: couples who do not marry tend to split up much more quickly.

Couples who do not marry tend to split up much more quickly than couples who do tie the knot - that is the striking conclusion reached by researchers from the University of Antwerp, who have been following almost 20 000 couples since 1999.

Belgium is known for its very high divorce rates, but most official statistics only take married couples into account. Sociologists from the University of Antwerp examined relationship stability among unmarried cohabiting couples, finding that separation rates are much higher for cohabiting couples than for married couples. This means that the official statistics on divorce do not tell the full story and may actually hide an important - but invisible - wave of separations among cohabiting couples.

During their study, the researchers compared the separation rates of cohabiting and married couples in Belgium. “We learnt that major differences also exist within the group of cohabiting couples,” says Prof. Dimitri Mortelmans. “On the one hand, there are couples who ‘convert’ their cohabiting relationship into marriage after a certain amount of time. Among this group of converters, the divorce figures are similar to those of married couples who did not live together before they got married: about one in four are no longer together after 14 years.”

Linked to children and income

"On the other hand, you have cohabiting couples who never marry. Many more of the couples in this group end up separating - two in three couples are no longer together after 14 years. One possible explanation is that it is mainly strong couples, characterised by high relationship quality and positive prospects, who convert their relationships into marriages. Couples who notice quickly that they are not a good match are less likely to marry and therefore split up more quickly and easily.”

The results also indicate that certain background characteristics play an important role in determining whether cohabiting couples stay together. Researcher Layla Van den Berg explains: “Younger couples tend to split up much more often than couples who get together later in life. Couples who do not have children in the first few years of their relationship also split up more often than couples who do. And couples whose incomes are lower are also less likely to stay together.”

The research was carried out using data on almost 20 000 Belgian couples who were married or living together between 1999 and 2001. The scientists followed these couples until 2013 to see whether and when they broke up.