Most family breakdowns aren't happening because marriages are falling apart, a new study from the Marriage Foundation shows. The trouble, according to the data, is among the unmarried.
In his recently published "Sources of family breakdown in the UK," the foundation's research director, Harry Benson, found that despite a historically low marriage rate in society today, existing marriages have been a buffer for teenagers. The study found that 84% of all parents who are still together when their biological child turns 14 are married couples.
The study tracked 4,476 mothers with children born between 2000-2002 from the Millennium Cohort Study, and it shows that parents who cohabit but never marry are the most likely to separate by the time their child turns 14.
Some 60% of cohabiting parents separated by the time their child turned 14, compared with just 21% of couples who married before the birth of their first child and 32% who married after.
"This detailed study, which followed thousands of families in the Millennium Cohort Study, yet again shows the simple truth that marriage matters. There are many reasons why this is the case, but at its simplest level, this is because the act of marriage involves a clear mutual decision about your future together. It sends a big signal that puts both people on the same page and removes any lingering doubts and ambiguities," Benson said in a statement.
"Marriage provides relationship clarity and encourages good things like sacrifice and forgiveness, which are so important when children are involved. This is why couples who have tied the knot tend to be more stable and more likely to weather the challenges that life throws at them. This is why marriage accounts for lower levels of family breakdown than other less stable forms of relationship. No wonder a huge majority of couples who are still together by the time their children become teenagers are married."
Despite the positive relationship between marriage and the well-being of families, a 2020 report from the National Center for Health Statistics showed that marriage rates in the U.S. reached their lowest point in more than 100 years due to changing norms and economic insecurity.
The report by statisticians Sally Curtin and Paul D. Sutton noted that while adults have been increasingly postponing marriage, a record number of youth and young adults are projected to forego marriage altogether.
Even though the federal government has been collecting marriage data since 1867, the latest report focuses on the marriage rate per 1,000 population from 1900 through 2018. From 2017 to 2018, the rate dropped 6%, from 6.9 per 1,000 population to 6.5, the lowest marriage rate on record for the period studied.
Reacting to Benson's study, Sir. Paul Coleridge, founder of the Marriage Foundation, noted that the data debunks a number of myths about marriage.
"Every experienced parent knows that if adolescents are to successfully navigate the scary teenage years, they need a secure and stable family environment. This new research is full of striking stats but for me two stand out. Firstly, by age 14, nearly half the nation's children are not living with both their natural parents, in itself very concerning. However, of those who are still together the vast majority (84%) have married parents. A paltry 16% of intact couples get to this crucial period unmarried. The moral of the story is that if you want to experience the rich rewards of fully enjoying your children through their tricky teenage years, marrying the other parent is a crucial first step," he said.
"The second myth, which this research yet again debunks, is that family breakdown is mostly about married couples getting divorced. Just not true," he added. "The unchallenged fact is that divorce rates have been dropping for decades and, as a consequence, if you marry today, you will probably still be married for the rest of your life. Family breakdown is three times more common amongst unmarried couples."