Conscious Coupling: Age And The Continued Rise In Cohabitation
Published on 22 December, 2021 | Alice Rogers
Seven years ago, a new term entered into the vocabulary for those considering the language of relationships.
The actress Gwyneth Paltrow described how her divorce from the Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin amounted to a “conscious uncoupling” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2014/mar/26/conscious-uncoupling-gwyneth-paltrow-chris-martin-separation).
Although, Ms Paltrow didn’t coin the phrase, she used it to explain how the pair – who have two children – were ending their marriage with a degree of planning and the intention to remain friends.
Of course, there are probably very few couples who embark on such a momentous step as divorce or marriage without first weighing up its potential implications for themselves and those close to them in full.
I believe that the same degree of planning is invested by many of those who move in together without marrying.
Cohabitation used to carry something of a stigma, being pejoratively referred to as “living in sin” by those who regarded marriage as the gold standard of relationships.
Nevertheless, times – and societal attitudes – change.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just published figures which reflect the marital status and living arrangements of the country’s 56.5 million households during 2020 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/populationestimatesbymaritalstatusandlivingarrangements/2020).
What emerges is fascinating. It also illustrates, however, the significant personal and legal challenges in trying to keep pace with shifts in how we all live our domestic lives.
Marriage remains the most common arrangement, accounting for just over half of all legal partnerships in England and Wales. Even so, there were four per cent fewer marriages last year than in 2010.
Cohabitation, though, is far more frequent. In 2020, there were more than six million unmarried couples living together – up 59 per cent on the figure for 2002, the earliest year for which data is available.
If we look a little closer, though, certain other patterns become clear.
Across all age groups, for instance, the percentage of individuals who cohabit having previously been married or in a civil partnership fell by four per cent in five years.
That trend is reversed in the age groups most associated with divorce.
Among those individuals aged between 45 and 59 who were living together last year having already been in another legal relationship, cohabitation was up 17 per cent in 10 years. For those aged over 60, the figure rose by 50 per cent in a decade.
One of the factors often cited for cohabitation is that the men and women involved may want to avoid the repeat of a painful break-up or divorce.
Yet that position is undermined if we look at those cohabitees who were previously neither spouses nor civil partners. The proportion of those individuals increased by 264 per cent in the 10 years to 2020.
Whether they have experienced a divorce or not, many people who are in middle-age and older have a desire for companionship as they head into retirement.
They are also conscious of the fact that no relationship is guaranteed to stand the test of time.
It is one reason why we have seen a rise in the number of cohabitation agreements being entered into in the last few years.
Some of those were put in place during the early stages of lockdown last year as prevailing circumstances convinced men and women of the benefits of moving in together earlier than they might otherwise have done.
In such a situation, a cohabitation agreement makes absolute common sense but they arguably serve another useful purpose too.
As the ONS records show, almost 90 per cent of cohabitees go on to marry – up by just over one-third since 1994. Among women aged older than 60, the increase was even more pronounced (58 per cent).
For those who have already entered into a cohabitation agreement, the task of discussing the kind of assets which are integral to a marital contract is an easier proposition.
It is, if you like, a prelude to a pre-nup, a document which offers the parties certainty in the event that their relationship breaks down.
Preparation for cohabitation is important because despite repeated efforts to provide cohabitees a measure of the same property rights on the collapse of their relationships as are enjoyed by those in marriages or civil partnerships, a Private Members’ Bill introduced by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Marks is still nowhere near the Statute Book (https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2639).
Cohabitation agreements set out what happens to the assets which both parties who move in together if they go their separate ways.
It can helpfully complement documents drawn up on purchasing a property, such as a declaration of trust, which is the deliberation of ownership using property law (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/47/contents).
Early advice is critical. Seeking the advice or guidance of professionals before setting up home together means knowing what to do and can avoid a process which can be both costly and complex should, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, your relationship also uncouple.