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Think family breakdown is getting worse? This will make you think again

Christians often argue that family breakdown is a growing problem. But a new report from the Marriage Foundation reveals that because fewer couples are getting divorced, more teenagers are living with both their natural parents than five years ago.

The first evidence that lower divorce rates have produced less family breakdown is in. And yes, it surprised me too.

There is indeed less family breakdown around today compared to five or ten years ago.

Along with my colleague Professor Steve McKay at University of Lincoln, we looked at two big national surveys to see how family breakdown has changed over time.

Both surveys told us much the same thing. In 2010 around 45 per cent of young teenagers aged 13-15 were not living with both natural parents. But today, the figure is much lower - only 36 per cent.

The fall was a surprise to me because I'd made the assumption that, as fewer couples marry, those who don't marry are much more likely to split up. That's still very much the case. But what I'd not counted on was the incredible impact made by falling divorce rates over the past 20 years or so.

One of the two studies also allowed us to show that, even today, almost all couples who stay together until their children are in GCSE classes are married. 

It might help to visualise a typical class full of 30 young teenagers. Here's what it would have looked like ten years ago:

  • 17 were living with both parents who were still together and also married
  • 1 was living with both parents who were still together but not married
  • 12 were living with one or neither parent

Today, you would find the same number of children living with two married parents. The difference is that two children now live with unmarried parents and only 11 with one or neither parent - and hence a fall in family breakdown. These are not big differences but it matters like mad if you are that one child.

So what we're seeing is the growth of relatively unstable cohabitation at the expense of relatively stable marriage. But we're also seeing that those fewer marriages are doing a lot better.

I'm often asked why divorce rates have been falling so much. The key point is that fewer wives are filing for divorce during their first decade of married life. There's been no real change among husbands filing and there's been no change among either filing after ten years.

So whatever the reason, it has to account for this very strong gender effect. If it were social or economic factors like money or housing or smartphones, it would probably affect both men and women, which hasn't happened. 

What I think has been happening is that as social pressure to marry recedes, those who do marry really mean it. They are 'deciders' and not 'sliders'. And this act of decision seems to be especially important for men's commitment.

The result is that more committed newlywed men equals happier newlywed wives!

And the really good news is that this improvement in overall family stability is likely to continue. Divorce rates among those who haven't yet reached their first fifteen years are even lower than they were for their counterparts ten years ago. 

None of this detracts from the message that getting married remains by far the best way to ensure that a relationship lasts. What's been incredibly disappointing is the almost total lack of recognition for this reality by government. In fact government policy actively discourages stability by paying more in benefits and tax credits if couples stay apart rather than together.  If family breakdown can improve with government hindrance, think how much it could improve with government help. 

Harry Benson is married to Kate, father of six children, research director for Marriage Foundation, and co-author (with Kate) of the bestseller What Mums Want and Dads Need to Know 

Read The Marriage Foundation's full report on family stability

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