Home > Uncategorized > “Cohabitation Is Not A Cure-all”

“Cohabitation Is Not A Cure-all”

by Robert Whiston FRSA   20th August 2010

Cohabitation is apparently a topic in need of ‘urgent reform’ and as such it crops up in erudite circles with alarming regularity.

The matter has been earnestly debated in both the Commons and the House of Lords; legislation readied; doom-laden forecasts made and dire consequences predicted, but is the demand for cohabitation reform really there ?

Recent ONS data in “Children with a non-resident parent” (see ‘Population Trends’ No. 140 Summer 2010), helps shed some light on the supposed trend.

Cohabitation has been growing for a long time, we are being told, and its rate is increasing year on year. Furthermore, it is a social trend that cannot be stopped and, sooner or later, it will become an avalanche which will engulf us if we do not prepare for it now.

Unfortunately, both statements are examples of being economical with the truth; anything starting as a small percentage, say 2%, can double overnight and still remain insignificant; social trends are, by definition, trends that have one or several origins or triggers. They need not be permanent (and seldom are), and can be countered by incentives that trigger a movement in the opposite direction.

At the crux of the moves to reform cohabitation rights is the ability of a cohabiting woman (but not the man) to gain from a separation as if she were a married woman divorcing her husband, i.e. a spousal relationship. It is simply a continuum of the empowerment dogma of 1970s feminism.

The envisaged legal changes (as proposed by Lord Lester and the Law Commission, for example), are shallow and short-termist. It would enable only female cohabitees to inherit and profit from separation.

The ‘usual’ reason for this sex discrimination is given, namely to secure the children from ‘want and need’ should the male cohabitee suddenly die, default or the couple decide to move on to new relationships.

To paraphrase the reformers, “tens of thousands of women are left penniless and destitute.”

But what in life is ever guaranteed, other than death and taxes ? Life doesn’t come with a guarantee but apparently reformers want lifetime guarantee given to cohabitees – men, it would seem, will simply have to bite the bullet and get along as best they can.

The claim, to paraphrase the reformers, that; “tens of thousands of women are left penniless and destitute” is quite untrue and no evidence has been forthcoming to support such an assertion.

The claim also presupposes that it is the man who abandons the relationship.

If divorce is any indication of man-woman relationships then it is best that we recall that upwards of 75% of all divorces are begun and put into operation by women.

But what of this predicted ‘avalanche’ and is the increase in cohabiting an immutable reality ?  

ONS data casts doubt on both contentions when it compares 1999 data with 2009 (see Fig 3 below). They find that the number of children aged under 16 living with a female lone parent has hardly altered in 10 years (approx 71%, and this excludes children in widow households). [1]

Scotland has already tried to tread this path towards cohabitatee reform but within 12 months of passing “Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006” (designed to benefit female cohabitees) it all unravelled.

Despite the 2006 Act, when a cohabiting Scottish father was killed in a road accident the mother had to sue her children’s estate to gain any income from her dead partner’s estate. Two sets of expensive lawyers had to be employed to avert any ‘conflict of interest’. This was precisely the scenarios we predicted and warned the Law Commission would possibly occur – a resurrection of ‘irregular marriages’ formerly banished more than a century or ago. [2]

Fig 3 above, which is the latest graph published, shows ‘cohabiting couples with children’ as hardly altering between 1999 and 2009. What might have dramatically increased in that period is the number of young people cohabiting before children are born or before marriage – but that is not the concern of this paper or of Lord Lester’s legislative proposals.

The claim of an avalanche can therefore be dismissed and the ‘dynamic growth’ in the number of cohabiting couples discredited by its total absence. The immutable fact remains that cohabiting couples have remained static over 10 years at approx 11%.

Ironically, this is the very area where John Haskey and Patricia Morgan clashed so fundamentally 10 years ago, the former pointing to its potential growth and the later dismissing it as insignificant. Yet this is the area now said to be in need of urgent reform. [3] On the above evidence it would seem that Morgan was right; cohabiting is a minority sub-set and is remaining so.

If this is the case one wonders whether or not the future projections produced for the Mayor of London and London council, see Fig 4 below, took the relevant information into account ?


‘Cohabiting couples’ are highlighted in the table above as growing over 50% from 333,000 in 2006 to 584,000 in 2029. Produced probably before the publication of Population Trends’ No. 140, Fig 4 (shown above), will have to be recalibrated in the light of this newer data.

According to the Labour Force Survey (LFS), the number of dependent children (children aged under 16) in Great Britain living with ‘one non-widowed birth parent’ rose from 3.2 million in 1999 to 3.8 million in 2009 (600,000m over 10 years, or 60,000 per annum).

‘One non-widowed birth parent’ in this instance is leaky to mean one adult parent usually the mother who is unmarried or divorced – but excluding any widows.

Contrary to expectations (partly wished upon us by others), dependent children living in married couple households have seen not a decline. Instead, and contrary to all predictions, a slight resurgence can be seen in the data. Whether this is fleeting or more long lasting will become evident next year or the year after that.

The only continuing decline, and it is a depressing decline stemming from the Children Act 1989, is in the number of male lone parents, e.g. divorced fathers. Fewer and fewer of them are being allowed to act as a parent to their children.

It is also interesting to note (on page 65), ONS reports of women that:

 “Of the 40% in the 2006/07 study, one quarter [25%] responded that they were “in a relationship but not cohabiting” with the child’s other parent. The remaining three quarters [75%] reported that they had a “brief relationship or no relationship”.

This rather pulls the rug from under the reformer’s argument which suggests women do not know the difference between spousal commitment and entitlements and cohabiting ones.

In answer to another series of questions it becomes crystal clear that spousal and cohabiting relationships, as currently defined, are well understood by the ordinary members of the population. In Table C2a (below), we see that respondees were clearly able to label their relationship as divorced or separated following a legal marriage, or cohabiting, or never having lived together.

Only 1% refused to answer and only 2% didn’t know their status – a far cry from the 30% + sometimes cited by reformers.

In the House of Lords, Ruth Deech is leading a campaign to halt the Lord Lester led slide into

mediocrity – and, it is feared, a new era of permanent poverty for both the proletariat and middle class.

As indicated above, the arguments about cohabiting have a long and unhappy history. Reformers skirt over the Royal Commissions of the 19the century and the heartache visited on generations of women by ‘irregular marriages’.

Reformers prefer not to know or profess ignorance of key pieces of legislation, namely the “Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975”. Application under this Act can be made by any person regardless of age who is legally deemed to be a dependent at the time of the testators’ death.

It specifically includes a cohabitee of more than two years, ‘disabled or illegitimate children’, children from a previous relationship and children living with the deceased prior to his demise; it even caters for “any person who received regular financial assistance.”

The idea, therefore, that, “tens of thousands of women and their children will be left penniless and destitute” is patently a nonsense.

In their campaign to guarantee women protection from the vagaries of life using a man’s wallet the reformers have ‘floated’ a two years rule meaning that to benefit cohabitation would have to have existed for two years or longer.

Unfortunately cohabitation by its very nature s unlicensed and unregulated. Therefore, at the demise of the man or at separation any convenient date could be used on the petition presented to the court for the compensation money.  

Additionally, there is nor ‘exclusivity clause’ for that two years, meaning that cohabitation may have been sporadic, or even shared with another man, i.e. an affair(s) hidden from the man now being jettisoned.

It has to be pretence by reformers that they are not conversant with existing legislative provisions for cohabitees (or are they more ignorant than we give them credit for ?).

[1]  The equivalent figures for other family types were: 1/. cohabiting couple, 12% (0.5 million), 2/. married or civil partnered, 12% (0.4 million), and 3/. male lone parent, 6% (0.2 million).

[2]  “New family law could bring legal misery” The Southern Reporter, 20th April 2007. The unexpected technicality led to a protracted and expensive civil court battle.

[3]  “Marriage Lite”, p9 Civitas, “11% women under 60 in Great Britain cohabit.”(Ref Living in Britain: 1998 General Household Survey, Office for National Statistics, London: The Stationery Office, 1999. http://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/cs04.pdf 

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