Get married before you have a child: The hard evidence

Ever since the cohabitation boom took off in the 1980s, people have become a lot more relaxed about whether or not it is best to marry before having children. In 1989, three quarters of the British public said people who want children should get married. By 2012, this had dropped to less than half. Our attitudes to marriage have reflected the trend away from marriage.

But does this shift in opinion fit with the evidence? Or is it more a case of going with the flow and not wishing to judge?

Today Marriage Foundation publishes the first ever UK analysis of who stays together and who splits up among couples who marry before their child is born, those who marry later and those who don’t marry at all. It seems amazing that this hasn’t been done before (so far as I know), other than one study from 1999 that only covered the first five years of parenthood.

Together with Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln, we analysed data from Britain’s largest household survey, Understanding Society. We looked at 1,783 mothers with children aged 14 or 15 who were surveyed in the years 2009 or 2010. We divided them into three categories of couple – married then birth, birth then married, never married – leaving out the sole parents who had no ongong relationship with the child’s father from birth onwards. We then looked at who stayed together and who did not. We also looked at their age and whether or not they had a university degree.

(The Times, Telegraph and Daily Mail have all run the story)

  • The proportion of mothers who married first then divorced along the way was 24%. Mothers with a degree did even better, with just 18% splitting up.
  • Of those who started off unmarried but later married, 56% went on to divorce. This was a new and surprising finding, being much higher than expected.
  • Finally among couples who never married, 69% splt up. This was another new finding, confirming what models had predicted but no study has ever shown conclusively.

46 Who splits up - US 09-10The full report gives a lot more detail on this if you want it. Suffice to say we found several other interesting new findings

  • Among mothers who remained intact, almost all – 92% – were married. For those with a degree, it was 96%. For those without, 91%. These latter findings are new.
  • Half of couples who are not married when their child is born will then go on to get married at some stage. This is another new finding and more than I expected.
  • Age and education made no significant difference to the odds of splitting up. A really big surprise. For example, among mothers who married first, 82% of those with a degree remained intact compared to 74% of those without a degree – ie not a great deal of difference. The key factor was whether mothers married before their baby’s birth, after the birth, or not at all.
  • Even after taking into account age and marital status, staying together was linked to the same apparent boost to household income as having a degree. For example, a 45 year old mother of a 14/15 year old child who married before her child was born earned 35% more household income if she was still living with the father than if she was not (this comparison is ‘equivalised’ for size of family).

The bottom line of our analysis was this.

  • Couples who marry before having a child have the best chance of staying together.
  • Getting married after your child is born reduces your risk by one fifth. Yet the majority of couples who are committed enough to get married at some point after their child is born will have given up on their promise by the time their child is fifteen.
  • Not marrying at all is by far the riskiest option. Fewer than a third of couples who don’t formalise their commitment by getting married will stay together throughout their child’s upbringing.

All of which evidence shows that the dwindling, yet significant, minority of the British public who still think it best to marry before you have a child … are right.

46 Who are the intact couples - US 09-10


11 thoughts on “Get married before you have a child: The hard evidence

  1. Another case of the majority of the public being misinformed by the media and the error of popular opinion. The cases used to justify not marrying, don’t stack up.

    I suspect if such a study was done on Domestic Violence, you would find a similar batch of evidence. There is DV in some marriages, but a far greater number, and much higher likelihood, and therefore risk, among those couples who are unmarried. Unfortunately the Home a Office do not require the police to record Marital status when recording DV. The results would be startling!
    The myth that getting married means you could be trapped in an abusive relationship is just that. Many more unmarried couples (%) are victims of DV, the unmarried making up the greater % of those reported. The data is not readily available, as outlined above. If the gov was serious about DV, tackle the underlying causes and greater risk.

    • Back in the ’90s I saw information that similarly tracked neglect and abuse of children set against marital status of parents, based on court data. It followed the same pattern.

  2. I wonder if the decision to marry first has any correlation with, say, personality, or belief constructs – I don’t know, I’m just curious. So if you are the “type” to marry (first or at all), are you more likely to place a higher premium on loyalty, faithfulness, integrity etc.

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