Is marriage going permanently out of fashion?


UK divorce rates are in decline. You might be surprised to hear that, given the increasingly fractured nature of the typical family unit these days, but it is true. Divorces actually peaked in 1993 at 165,000, and have been steadily dropping year on year – the figure for 2016 was just under 107,000.

You just know that there is a “but” coming though, don’t you? A major factor behind this trend is that there are fewer married couples out there to get divorced. To compare apples with apples, we need to note that in 1993 there were around 300,000 marriages, whereas in 2016 the number was about 250,000.

Put that way, the statistics don’t look so impressive. Today’s divorce rate is about the same as it was in 1973. But the difference is that back then, about 400,000 people were getting married every year.

Is cohabitation the new norm?

I have mentioned on these pages from time to time that the government and legislative bodies can sometimes be slow to “get with the programme” and react to changes in society. But to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, isn’t that something we are all guilty of from time to time?

There is a tendency to think that “not bothering to get married” is something that applies to the younger generation. But is that really the case? You might remember a TV sitcom called The Two of Us. It starred Nicholas Lyndhurst and Janet Dibley as Ashley and Elaine, a young, modern, unmarried couple who lived together at a time when that was being described at the “new norm,” although it was frowned upon by some in older generations.

But did you realise that series was broadcast in 1986, more than 30 years ago? Nicholas Lyndhurst is in his late 50s now, and Janet Dibley will turn 60 next year.

Perhaps it is we who need to “get with the programme” and understand that cohabitation is not the new norm, it has been a part of life since the baby boomer generation.

More cohabiting over 50s

I mentioned a few weeks back that the total number of cohabiting couples has doubled in the UK over the past 20 years. A similar pattern has been observed in the USA, but the really interesting statistic from across the pond is that since 2007, while the total number of cohabiting couples in America has risen by around 30 percent, the number aged 50 and above has skyrocketed by some 75 percent.

UK-based stats about the over 50s are not readily available, but it is no great leap of faith to assume that something very similar is happening here, too. The thing about popular TV shows is that they are very much of their time. Only Fools and Horses reflected the yuppie phenomenon, The Office was a pastiche on life in the corporate world of the new millennium and so on. So given our observations about The Two of Us, perhaps we should not be so surprised by those statistics after all.

Renee Stepler is a research analyst at Pew, the company that produced the report. She feels that the shift might be down to another change in the way today’s couples view cohabitation. In years gone by, it was seen as a step to be taken prior to marriage – almost a chance to try married life out for size before fully committing.

Today, however, it is increasingly an “instead of.” In the main, these are not older couples who have found love later in life. Most are in stable long-term relationships – they are Ashley and Elaine 30 years down the line, if you like, still happily together. Many have children and even grandchildren together. And this raises some interesting and potentially serious issues.

In sickness and in health?

Those who advocate cohabitation typically say that they do not need a piece of paper to demonstrate their commitment to one another, and many of those who are now in their late 50s and have been together all these years will probably be quick to reiterate it with even greater confidence.

The trouble is, that is fine while things are going well, and everyone is happy and healthy. But what happens in times of adversity if one partner decides to up and leave, falls ill, loses his or her job or, heaven forbid, passes away? And how about when retirement age is reached, how will things work then? It’s only seven years away for Janet Dibley, after all, unless the government moves the goalposts again!

Protect yourself

Terry Savage is a columnist who writes extensively for the Huffington Post and similar publications, and she has discussed this topic at length. She told the Chicago Tribune that cohabitation can end up being extremely costly for couples as they get older, and warned: “While they may choose to live outside the conventional bounds of marriage, they don’t live outside the conventional bounds of property law.”

It is therefore more important than ever that cohabiting couples protect themselves and, just as importantly, each other, by having binding agreements in place with regard to their finances and possessions.

Rightly or wrongly, family courts place zero importance on cohabiting couples. Even if you and your partner have been together for years, if you are not married, you will not have the legal protection and rights of a spouse.

Fortunately, even if the legal system will not help you, there is a way to help yourself, and that is by drawing up a cohabitation agreement. It is sometimes called a no-nup, but that is something of a misnomer, as due to the similarity to the term prenup, people associate it with the division of spoils if the relationship breaks down.

While it certainly does cover that eventuality, the more pertinent point is that it gives you and your partner the opportunity to memorialise how things stand right now. And that could be hugely important in the years to come.

If you would further information about drawing up a cohabitation agreement, we would be more than happy to help. Just give us a call us on 020 7381 8111, or get in touch via email at law@hylton-potts.com.

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