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Marital status has long been recognized as a fundamental socio-demographic characteristic associated with many important behaviours and outcomes; William Farr, one of the first Registrar Generals, noted in 1858 that ‘marriage is a healthy estate'. Married men have been shown to be healthier than single men; married women are less likely to be employed than single women; widows are economically less well off than married women; and so on.

However, since the 1970s there have been 'considerable changes ... amounting to a structural shift in individuals' demographic behaviour and societal norms' (Haskey, 2001, p5) and among these are increases in divorce and in cohabitation, that is, in couples who live together in intimate relationships without being legally married. These changes are challenging the validity of marital status as a major predictive variable; today's married man may be healthier than his single peer, but tomorrow his life and habits may be disrupted by divorce. Marital status, measured at one point in time, may no longer have the power to represent a lifetime's engagement with a partner and family.

These tables examine the rising phenomenon of cohabitation (in this study, people in same-sex cohabiting relationships are not selected for the sample). In the past its prevalence was difficult to assess as social disapproval led to reticence on the part of the cohabiting couple and therefore to caution on the part of survey and census interviewers. However, since the 1970s increasingly straightforward questions have been asked and responses have been elicited. The 2001 Census found that 8.3% of all households were composed of a cohabiting couple, with or without children; and in the 2006 General Household Survey, 13% of people aged 16 to 59 reported themselves as cohabiting.

These substantial proportions raise the question for social scientists of how cohabitation compares with legal marriage as a predictor for other characteristics. Haskey (2001), using cross-sectional and retrospective data in the General Household Surveys of 1998 and earlier, showed that:

  • current cohabitations (i.e. at the time of the survey) were of much shorter average duration (so far) than current marriages;
  • younger people were more likely than older people to be cohabiting;
  • the proportion of people who had at some time cohabited without subsequently marrying that partner was rising fast; and
  • a large and increasing proportion of married couples had cohabited together before marriage.

It has long been observed that cohabitation is not a homogeneous phenomenon. Haskey (2001) used his own findings (above) and those of others on trends in cohabitation and attitudes to it, and suggested that the majority of people cohabiting did so with the intention of forming a life-long union if the relationship continued to be satisfactory, and that many hoped to marry in the future. On the other hand, some people – particularly those who did not plan to have children – cohabited because it suited them in the present and saw no need to make plans for the future. Further study of the duration of cohabitation and its outcome (legal marriage, separation or death) in combination with other characteristics would help to distinguish between different types of cohabitation; these in turn could be compared (in their cross-sectional form) with other marital states to refine the traditional classificatory variable of marital status.

Marriage and cohabitation histories from the General Household Survey or other sources have the disadvantage of being cross-sectional: we can only examine the cohabiting partners by their characteristics at one point in time. The retrospective data which they include suffer from the problems of recall; these are known to be serious with an informal event like the beginning or end of a cohabitation (Lilly, 2000). Longitudinal data from the British Household Panel Survey have been examined (Ermisch & Francesconi, 2000) but are hampered by relatively small numbers of people cohabiting.

Using the ONS Longitudinal Study we benefit from a 1% sample of the population, and can examine characteristics of the cohabiting partners at two points in time, by using successive Censuses. Here we have examined people who reported themselves as cohabiting in the 1991 Census by their partnership status at the 2001 Census. This 2001 outcome includes the categories:

  • respondent is still cohabiting with the 1991 partner
  • respondent is married to the 1991 partner
  • respondent is cohabiting with a different partner
  • respondent is married to a different partner
  • respondent has no current partner

In this way we can contribute to knowledge about cohabitation as an increasingly significant feature of society in the 21st century.