Almost half of all children in the United Kingdom will see their parents--whether married or unmarried--split by their 16th birthdays, according to a new study released last week by the Centre for Social Justice.
Lead researchers Dr. Samantha Callan and Professor Rebecca Probert found that 48 percent of kids will experience a “family breakdown” by the time they are 16--a figure that is steadily growing. In addition, they discovered that British births outside of marriage, which is more unstable for kids than marriage, are at an all time high.
These results contradict Professor Pat Thane’s findings from the Happy Families? History and Family Policy report, written for the British Academy and released last year, which indicated that cohabitation and family breakdown has been prominent and relatively constant in British culture for years.
Dr. Callan discussed the implications of the CSJ study with the Huffington Post.
Your study found that “family breakdowns” are at an unprecedented high. What does “family breakdown” mean, exactly?
My organization always looks at three dimensions of family breakdown. The first is what we’re most familiar with, so that’s separation and divorce, people being together and then no longer living together. We are also concerned about dysfunction, when families are chaotic and children aren’t being nurtured. And [finally] fatherlessness--sometimes the family was never together in the first place.
This isn’t to say that all divorcing and separating families are dysfunctional, but it is saying that we’re not just concerned with people who split up. We’re concerned that families are being formed where there’s no dad in the picture, and women are left to struggle on their own. The culture supports going at it alone, and it doesn’t make allowances for the fact that this is actually a really hard way to bring up children.
The divorce rate in England and Wales is actually the lowest since 1974, according to the Office for National Statistics. How does that jibe with your findings?
Where we have the big growth area in family breakdown is the breakup of cohabiting couples. Eighty percent of all family breakdown involving children under five is where the parents weren’t married. So what you do when you have a problem is track the growth area.
Can you explain the implications and meaning of having children “outside marriage”?
What we’ve been up against in Britain is a majority academic view that we’ve had lots of periods in history where people haven’t bothered to get married, so marriage hasn’t been central, meaning people living together and not making formal marriage ties. They say our current high levels of informal childbearing, having babies outside of marriage, is nothing new.
What we have found from research counters that and says, actually, we’ve never been here before. We’ve never had such high rates of birth outside of marriage, and it matters because if you are closely involved or cohabiting but not formally married, you’re far far more likely to break up when you have children.
What about happily cohabitating couples? Is marriage inherently more stable? In the US, it's not necessarily so; are things different than in the UK?
I don’t think they are very different … We always hear about these happily cohabitating couples, now, when we look at the statistics, we found that in 2001, when our last census was done, that 97 percent of all couples still intact by the time their children were 15--in other words, had seen them through the children years--were married. Even very liberal academics will say that continuously cohabitating couples are rare.
And more recent statistics than that show 9 percent of married couples have split up by the time children were five, as opposed to 26 percent of cohabitating, and an astonishing 60 percent of people who described themselves as closely involved at the time of the birth… So it’s stability that really matters, because it’s the breakdown that is the most damaging thing.
Can you tell me about how these findings differ from the findings from the Happy Families? History and Family Policy report released last year, and why that's significant?
We say, this government needs to support marriage, not making people get married, but support the institution of marriage… The Happy Families? History and Family report said, essentially, ‘Rubbish. This government shouldn’t be worried about marriage because we’ve had previous periods of non-marriage and everything has been fine.’
…This is significant because the Happy Families paper says all we need to do is tackle poverty and families will be fine. We would say, CSJ is all about tackling poverty but what you’re actually acknowledging is as well as these structural conditions, the cultural conditions, the culture of non-marriage, the culture of 'have a baby early and don’t worry about getting married--if the dad’s involved fine, if he’s not involved fine.' Now these may be cultural adjustments to poverty, but this is contributing to the problem.
You seem to be sounding the alarm bells about these findings; is there cause for concern?
The main headline that has picked up in the UK was half of all children born in the UK will see the breakdown of their parents’ relationship, and this is staggering. This is cause for concern as far as I’m concerned. There are economic implications, but there are huge emotional implications for children and for parents.
What do you think the implications of family breakdowns are on children?
Our research says that actually the breakup can very adversely affect children. We looked at the outcomes for children growing up without their parents and we found statistics that children are 75 percent more likely to quit school, 50 percent ore likely to have alcohol problems. And it’s not saying 75 percent of all children growing up without mom and dad together will experience these things, it’s the likelihood of adverse outcome.
The Amatto birth research [studies headed up by American researcher Robert D'Amato] found that high conflict marriages, yup, they’re damaging, but so too of equal measure are low conflict divorces. In other words, when people divorce, kids can’t see it coming. That really freaks kids out because it says to them, nothing you do can make a relationship work, and actually maybe it was your fault. There are the messages sent off by low conflict divorce.
So what should people take away from the study?
That marriage makes a difference. Making a commitment, being far more intentional about your relationship before you have a baby, is very important. It’s not just about all the parenting stuff. Policy makers in Britain are fairly happy to talk about the importance of helping parents, but policy makers need to think about what we do to support couples, what we do to help couples make binding commitments before they do this enormous thing which is have a baby… The point is that fathers matter. Marriage makes men make decisions, frankly.
This is also based on Scott Stanley’s work at the university of Denver on commitment theory. The acceptability of the baby coming first and then thinking, ‘Will I make a commitment?’ is meaning that so many more children are going to grow up seeing their parents split up.