Mirror Marriage: Cohabitation And Complexity 

Published on 10 February, 2023 | Laura Guillon

For many individuals in many cultures and across many centuries, marriage has been the principal – and, in some cases, the only – way of forging relationships.

If we turn the clock back exactly a decade, in fact, to discussions about which led to the introduction of same-sex marriage, the then Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, described it as “the gold standard” to which couples aspired (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmpublic/marriage/130212/am/130212s01.htm).

Times change, however, and so do perceptions of how couples set up home together.

New data, drawn by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) from the 2021 census, has highlighted the extent to which our ideas of what constitutes acceptable home life have shifted (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/livingarrangementsofpeopleinenglandandwales/census2021).

I say “acceptable” because not too long ago the notion that couples might live together without any intention of marrying was nothing short of scandalous to a proportion of the population.

The figures released by the ONS, though, show that in the 10 years leading up to the last census alone, cohabitees had risen from one-fifth to one-quarter of all couples in England and Wales.

In the same period and despite the best efforts of those who cleave to the values which were the norm in previous generations, we have seen a more than five per cent reduction in the number of marriages each year (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2019#age-at-marriage).

The drop is even more precipitous if we consider that marriage numbers in 2019 were only marginally more than half of those in 1972, the year before a major reform of divorce law took effect.

What the new statistics make clear is that any stigma about cohabitation has largely disappeared.

If anything, cohabitation is widely regarded as an acceptable alternative to marriage by a broad range of people.

I say that because of the degree of detail which the glimpse into the country’s living rooms that is the census has provided us with.

The old stereotype of husbands leaving their wives for much younger women appears to be going the same way as the comedians and novelists who once used it as a staple ingredient of their output.

We now find that cohabitees are not only increasingly of the same age as each other but roughly the same age as their counterparts who opt to marry instead.

One of the other intriguing aspects of the data comes in the background of those who form unmarried relationships.

Cohabitation was once considered to be favoured by those unable or unwilling to meet the expenses arising from a wedding – the average cost of which last year, according to one source, stood at more than £18,000 (https://www.hitched.co.uk/wedding-planning/organising-and-planning/the-average-wedding-cost-in-the-uk-revealed/).

Looking at the census data, we can see that cohabitation is now a very definite lifestyle choice being made by men and women who live in more affluent parts of the country, a fair proportion of one might reasonably expect to be professionals.

So far, so good for the cohabitation lobby.

Yet with unmarried relationships there remains the need to add a very substantial caveat.

As an influential group of MPs emphasised only last year, the so-called ‘common law marriage myth’ persists (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmselect/cmwomeq/92/summary.html).

After exhaustive investigation, the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee issued a report calling on the Government to adapt “to the social reality of modern relationships while still recognising the social and religious status of marriage”.

It recommended that ministers reform the law on cohabitee rights, giving those involved at least a measure of financial and legal protection should their relationships collapse.

In November, however, the Government published its response acknowledging the Committee’s forceful demands and fundamental logic but rejecting the suggestion of legislative change after “careful consideration”.

The current project about the administration and financial aspects of divorce – which gave rise to the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorce in April last year – “must conclude before considering any change to the law in respect of the rights of cohabitants on relationship breakdown”.

As a result, the rising number of individuals who choose cohabitation rather than marriage must do so with, in my opinion, eyes wide open for the time being at least.

Many seem to do just that. Myself and my colleagues deal with a far greater number of men and women who put cohabitation agreements in place to clarify assets and commitments before they move in together.

If not, there is the potential of their having an all too common and very jarring experience involving the reliance on property law to justify a claim to a share of the assets of those whom might have given their love but didn’t confirm it by the exchange of rings or vows.

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