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A new survey -the first of its kind in Ireland - examines the self-reported quality of relationships and family life between cohabiting couples with children compared with married couples with children and finds stronger levels of commitment and satisfaction among married couples. The lower stability of cohabiting relationships is associated with poorer outcomes for children. The survey took place across 11 countries and The Iona Institute is presenting the Irish findings.

The key results are as follows:

Cohabiting couples have stronger doubts about relationship

Only 18pc of married couples with children have had “serious doubts” in the last 12 months that their relationship with their partner will last, compared with 34pc of cohabiting couples. This is a difference of almost two-to-one.

Cohabiting parents less likely to stress importance of relationship

It also found that 72pc of married parents say their relationship with their partner is “more important than almost anything else in life”, versus 58pc for cohabiting couples, a difference of 14 points.

Women are less likely than men to say their relationship with their partner is “more important than almost anything else”.

Sixty-five percent of married mothers say this compared with 79pc of married fathers. The figure for cohabiting couples is 53pc of mothers compared with 64pc of fathers.

Cohabiting couples less likely to be very satisfied with family life

Cohabiting couples are also less likely to be “very satisfied” with their family life than married couples. The figures are 56pc and 66pc respectively.

Roughly similar findings were found in the other 10 countries surveyed ranging from Australia to Chile and the UK. The findings hold after controlling for education, economic status etc.

The survey is part of a much bigger international survey (see note 1 below) conducted by the Institute for Family Studies called the 'Global Family and Gender Study' which spoke to married and cohabiting couples with children all over the world, including almost 2,500 people in Ireland. The study also examines wider issues of the family, as well as religious practice. Other findings will be released in due course.

The survey spoke only to couples aged 18-50 with children under the age of 18. Whether a couple has children or not obviously matters very greatly from a wider social point of view because society has a strong interest in the welfare of children. The findings are significant because good relationship stability has a strong positive effect on child welfare.

Data from the 2017 World Family Map report (see note 2 below) indicate that children born to cohabiting parents in Europe and the United States are about 90% more likely to see their parents break up, compared to children born to married parents. The differences in perceived stability this survey finds between married and cohabiting parents in Ireland and elsewhere parallel this finding.

The Global Family and Gender Survey also suggests that one factor explaining the stability premium for family life associated with marriage is commitment. Specifically, this survey finds that married parents are more likely to attach great importance to their relationship, compared to cohabiting parents.

Differences in stability between cohabiting and married families are noteworthy because children are, as mentioned, more likely to thrive in stable families. They tend to do better when their lives are marked by stable routines with stable caregivers. This survey, then, suggests that in many countries across the Americas, Europe, and Oceania, children may be more likely to experience such stability in a married family than in a cohabiting family.

In Ireland, the incidence of cohabitation has risen has very considerably in recent years. As at Census 2016, there were 152,302 cohabiting couples in the country and the total number of children aged under 15 living with cohabiting couples was almost 100,00 (98,457). This accounts for 12.5 of all children under 15 in Ireland. The figure in 2011 was 79,636, or 10.5pc.

The number of cohabiting couples overall was just 31,296 in 1996 according to the Census of that year, so there has been an almost fivefold increase in 20 years.

Commenting on the survey results, Professor Patricia Casey said: “The rise of cohabitation as a phenomenon receives very little attention or discussion, despite its growing prevalence here in Ireland just like overseas. Is this because we believe there isn’t much difference between marriage and cohabitation and therefore it isn’t very noteworthy?

“But this simply isn’t true. Cohabitation is less stable than marriage. When a cohabiting couple does not have children, this might not be of too much concern to the wider society, but when they do have children, it should be of concern”.

She continued: “This survey gives us some insight into why cohabiting relationships are less stable on average than marriage. We see that cohabiting parents are less likely to be satisfied with their relationships with each other and with their family life more generally compared with married couples. Being married, seems to add an extra layer of commitment and stability to a relationship.

Professor Casey concluded: “Clearly it is in the interests of children, and therefore of society and the State, to encourage relationship stability. For this reason, we should seriously consider actively promoting marriage between parents and would-be parents as a path to this”.

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