Thursday, 19 March 2009

Relationships still matter to Scotland’s new parents

Sarah Morton, CRFR Co-director and Lynn Jamieson, CRFR Co-director

New Registrar General figures released last week show that for the first time in Scotland more than half of babies were born to unmarried parents. Interestingly we are not the first part of the UK to reflect this change, with Wales reaching this point in 1993.

The news has been greeted with the predictable ringing of hands about the state of the family and concern about the plight of children born into these kinds of families. But what does this figure tell us about the root of these concerns - whether or not children are being born into stable, loving, long-term relationships?

Most of the 50.1 % of children in the headlines will be born into couple households where the couple are living together unmarried, rather than being born to solo mothers. The Registrar General’s report shows that the proportion of births registered only in the mothers name is just 6% and has remained fairly constant for over twenty years. Since 1995 a record has been kept of whether an unmarried mother and father registering a birth live at the same address. According to Scottish Government figures, as the proportion of married parents has shrunk so there has been an equivalent increase in births to parents living together. In 2007, 32% of births are jointly registered to parents living at the same address, 11% to parents at separate addresses and 6% by mothers alone.

It is now normal for most couples in Scotland to live together before they get married, and attitude surveys show that only a very small proportion of the population make any moral distinction between living together as couple and marriage. It may be that living together is seen as a sensible ‘testing’ of a relationship before making a fuller commitment. Or developing a sexual relationship and living together may have become ways of getting to know a partner and have become new conventional milestones in the process of constructing a long-term and perhaps life-long partnership.

Some cohabitees will go on to get married, and might indeed have intended to get married before having children. Perhaps the economic downturn will have put marriage plans on hold, especially with some experts claiming that the average cost of a wedding tops £20,000. A study by Jamieson and colleagues of married and cohabiting couples in their twenties living in Fife showed that many were in stable committed relationships but were not very concerned about their marital status. A very small minority were in the category that would have had ‘shotgun’ weddings in the past – their unplanned pregnancy had lead to them cohabiting and seeking to cement their relationship.

As there is no way to officially record co-habitation, it is difficult to research. We can record divorce rates but there is no official recording of cohabitation breakdown rates so there are no figures to compare. The British Household Panel survey asks people about their relationship status and follows them over time, and it is only through this kind of longitudinal data that we can unpick the facts. This type of data has been used to argue that cohabiting relationships are more fragile than married relationships. However, studies by Kamp Dush and Wu comparing relationship breakdown of cohabitees who marry before and after having children has also found no difference. Therefore, there is a continuing debate about whether or not cohabitees with children are more likely to separate than married couples, especially when we take other factors into account.

Looking across the decades since the 1970s, we know that the more well-off have always been more likely to marry and remain married. Less wealthy people may not have the resources for the wedding they would like, and less financial security contributes to relationship breakdown. When marriage was still the most common form of couple relationship, research has shown that the poorer were more likely to experience relationship breakdown and those who were poor and married very young were the most at risk.

If we translate these trends into today’s figures, there is very little change in what matters about the relationship status of Scotland’s new parents. Most babies will be born into as stable families as before, but just over half without the official stamp of marriage. Most new parents will be setting out to nurture and sustain their family unit. Whether or not they are married, a small proportion will separate as the children grow up. The Growing Up in Scotland study, a longitudinal study annually following infants, shows that in the course of their early years, between the first and second years of the study, more children gained a father in their household because of the partnering of a lone mother than experience the loss of a father. In the majority of new partnerships, it is the biological parents who have started to live together. The new figures reflect that marriage is a declining trend, but not that relationships no longer matter.

For further information about the Growing up in Scotland study, see the Growing Up In Scotland website.

For further information about other research cited in this blog please see the reference page.

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