Are Unmarried Relationships Really Subject To An Expiry Date?
Published on 14 May, 2020 | Alison Fernandes
If there is one thing certain about family life, it is that nothing is ever really certain.
The make-up of households across Britain and the rest of the world has undergone tremendous and very rapid change over the course of the last few decades.
In England and Wales, for instance, it’s no secret that the last half-century has seen a decline in the popularity of marriage.
The most recent set of figures made available by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of couples exchanging vows in 2017 was 45 per cent lower than in 1972 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2017#cohabitation).
That, of course, was the year before the introduction of the last major reform of divorce law.
While the number of couples bringing their marriages to a legal conclusion thereafter climbed to an all-time peak in 1993, it has also since fallen away by 45 per cent, according to the ONS (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2018#what-percentage-of-marriages-end-in-divorce).
Arguably the most dominant dynamic in Britain’s domestic arrangements has been the growth in men and women who choose to live together without marrying. It has risen by just over a quarter in the last decade (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2018).
However, the increase in cohabitation is itself not without challenges.
One news report in the last week has highlighted the work of researchers who suggest that unmarried couples are up against the clock if they’re to forge lasting relationships.
The Sunday Times described how cohabitees were subject to “the two-year itch”, a crunch point by which time they would either choose to marry or split up (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/8fbe1226-91ec-11ea-9c50-5254352bc924?shareToken=7e17eeb39f81e1fa1f1c978ceb01484f).
In addition, the study indicated that those who decided to marry would be more likely to stay together than break up.
When it comes to family life, though, nothing – no matter how well-researched – is particularly clear-cut.
The ONS has concluded that – in a sign of another change to social attitudes – almost 90 per cent of couples who married in 2017 lived together beforehand. By comparison, only 59 per cent of couples marrying in 1994 had done so.
Yet if we look beneath the eye-catching headlines which make us think that cohabitation really has something of an expiry date and scrutinise the official data, we find what might really be going on.
Marriage rates are falling except for those men and women who are middle-aged – that demographic group which has become known as the ‘silver splicers’.
In my experience, factors other than simply romance are at play for individuals of that age choosing to change their status from partner to that of spouse.
Many are rather more practical, weighing up their financial futures in particular.
Spouses, I should point out, are in a much more beneficial position when it comes to things such as widows’ pensions and Inheritance Tax than cohabiting partners.
Life, they reckon, is short and advancing years can focus the mind on providing for loved ones.
Incidentally, the same awareness of one’s mortality appears true for cohabiting couples spending the coronavirus lockdown together. Although some individuals have speculated that more relationships might end as a result of the dealing with the pressure created by the restrictions, there could equally be an increase in couples who believe that it provides them with ample evidence of why they should in fact marry.
Furthermore, they and their older counterparts are increasingly seeking to formalise their arrangements by putting pre-nuptial agreements in place.
They know that marriage does not guarantee a long and happy relationship any more than cohabitation does. For instance, 40 per cent of couples who married in 1995 won’t still be together to celebrate their silver anniversaries this year.
There is also the complication for those who wed after a lengthy cohabitation, possibly in an effort to save their relationships – the so-called ‘Band Aid marriages’.
Myself and my colleagues at Hall Brown Family Law have seen large numbers of such arrangements fail relatively quickly because marrying can’t overcome pre-existing difficulties.
When it comes to dividing joint marital assets on divorce, courts will take into account the total amount of their time together – including time before and after marriage. Without a pre-nup, therefore, the consequences can be considerable.