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Most unmarried parents split before child reaches 14

Parents who live together outside of marriage will likely split up before their child becomes a teenager, a study reveals.

According to a report published by the Marriage Foundation this week, by the time their first-born child turns 14, 60 percent of unmarried couples have separated.

In comparison, just 21 percent of couples who married before the birth of their first child split before their children reach their teenage years. The figure rises to 32 percent for parents who married after they had their first child.

Even after taking in a wide range of background factors such as ethnicity, age, time lived together, education, and relationship happiness, the probability of splitting up was still 46 percent for never married parents, significantly higher than the 26 percent for those marrying before the birth of their first child and 27 percent for those marrying after.

According to the findings, five out of every six parents of 14-year-old children who are still together as a couple are married, while just 16 percent of intact couples with teenagers have never married.

The study—Sources of Family Breakdown in the UK (pdf)—tracked 4,476 mothers with children born between 2000 and 2002 from the Millennium Cohort Study.

It found that, by the age of three, 26 percent of children are not living with both natural parents.

“Perhaps not surprisingly 18 percent of this 26 percent is accounted for by mothers not living with the father when the child was born,” said the report.

It is consistent with the findings of the government-commissioned Family Review, conducted by Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England.

The first phase of the review, unveiled last September, revealed that family structure in the UK has changed over the past 20 years, with fewer married couples, more cohabiting couples, and fewer “traditional” nuclear family units.

Some 44 percent of children born at the start of the century did not grow up in a “nuclear” family for their full childhood, compared with 21 percent of children born in 1970, it found.

The Marriage Foundation report concluded that “most family breakdown does not involve divorce at all and that most couples who stay together are married.”

‘Marriage Matters’

The foundation said its study has shown that “married parents are less likely to split up by the time their children are teenagers, less likely to split up in any given year regardless of income, and less likely to say their relationship deteriorated during lockdown.”

“Their teenage sons are less likely to experience mental health problems, their teenage girls are more likely to achieve both maths and English GCSE, and their adult children are more likely to go to university and less likely ever to need benefits,” it added.

Harry Benson, the foundation’s research director and author of the report, said the study “shows the simple truth that marriage matters.”

“There are many reasons why this is the case, but at its simplest level, this is because the act of marriage involves a clear mutual decision about your future together. It sends a big signal that puts both people on the same page and removes any lingering doubts and ambiguities.

“Marriage provides relationship clarity and encourages good things like sacrifice and forgiveness, which are so important when children are involved. This is why couples who have tied the knot tend to be more stable and more likely to weather the challenges that life throws at them. This is why marriage accounts for lower levels of family breakdown than other less stable forms of relationship.”

Benson criticized the government for “not doing more to support marriage.”

He said, “Whether, through the punitive couple penalty, perceived high wedding costs or simply an inexplicable refusal to acknowledge the benefits of marriage, our leaders are failing to support the thousands and thousands of young couples who still aspire to marry.”

–Wire services | Photo: Pexels

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