In the Yellow Chair

In the Yellow Chair: The impact of separation upon cohabiting couples

In the Yellow Chair with Mr Divorce Coach | Today’s Family Lawyer sits down with one of the UK’s first male divorce coaches who shares his thoughts on the impact of separation on cohabiting couples.

Couples are decreasingly getting married and instead choosing to cohabit. Why do you think this is?

There are a vast majority of factors that have contributed to marriages declining to their lowest ever level in over 150 years.

Interestingly, whilst the rate of marriages declines, the average annual divorce stats typically stay around the same levels as they have for the last few years, over 100,000 per annum, so there are two lenses to look through here.

From both a practical and emotional perspective, I see a variety of reasons impacting this shift and decline in marriages yet also attributing to the sustained level of divorces:

  • Societal norms have shifted. Cohabitation is no longer taboo as it once was, and widely accepted in modern day life. The same is true of being born out of wedlock – it is no longer a social challenge as it used to be.
  • Our Relationships with religion have changed.
  • Changes in traditional/stereotype gender & parental roles. There are more “stay at home Dads” than ever before, something I praise and advocate. Without parental equality, how can we balance other areas of life?
  • Media influences – TV, social media etc. What we see in the world and how it attains to our beliefs and values has also shifted.
  • Risk averse – financial commitments and protections relating to assets acquired in their single years (pensions/property/etc)
  • Rise of the “2nd Gen Divorcee” as I call it. Previous generations were the beginning of “mass produced” divorce, thus those children of divorced parents who are now in their 30s, 40s – maybe 50s – are re-evaluating their perception of what a relationship looks like to them.
  • Increase in age people are having children and buying their first home means they’re starting those phases of life later.
  • Debt & cost of living. Weddings cost thousands of pounds on average.
  • “Why do we need to get married”? If people have already managed to get on the property ladder, had a child or more, they feel they’re already living the mythical “common law marriage” life.
  • Sexual Fluidity has been noted in various studies. Marriage decline and sustained divorce rates are also happening in same-sex relationships. Which again begs the question of “why” that many are asking themselves.
  • Divorce horror stories. Very few “positive” divorce stories get the air time they deserve – we only hear the bad ones, the car crash stories, the horrendous outcomes. So it is easier to self-preserve and create a “cancel culture” towards marriage.

One reason people marry is the ties and protections created in law for each other in various events, including separation. Such protections for cohabiting couples are rare: the law has been described as “unfit for purpose”. As somebody at the emotional coalface of separation, do you notice a difference in the impact upon those who are married versus cohabitees who often find themselves in difficult situations with no protections or recourse?

Overall, the emotional impacts to an individual remain the same. They still go through their own emotional rollercoaster and turmoil, whatever the reasons for the ending of the relationship, whether that was their decision, the other parties or a mutual one. That process and subconscious equation of “Thought + Feeling = Emotion & Behaviour”, still comes out in the same formats of heartache, sadness, anger, fears, guilt, shame, self-resentment, plummeting confidence, and self-worth. They still trigger and hit us in the same way, married or unmarried.

For many unmarried cohabitants, this can add a deeper level of all those emotions. The protections afforded to married separating parties, whilst still deeply challenging emotionally, can at the very least bring them some form of basic solace in that they have rights, they can feel protected in some way. They have a position and opportunity to be heard and included in this process. Unmarried cohabitants feel muted: excluded from security and opportunity.

For the unmarried cohabitants, this lack of protection brings increased fears and worries. Anxieties go off the chart when they realise they have little to no protection, whether that be child, finance, or housing-related. I hear from far too many Dads who didn’t even know whey were never on the birth certificate and now have to “fight” to get that organised, in many occasions formally, before they can even begin to think about a CAO. That is of course in those instances where communication has broken down.

Likewise, there are many people out there – men and women – who are not protected financially, living in, or possibly even paying into a property or other asset they have no actual rights over should they split. Or, worse still, if they do not split but their partner passes away without a Will or any other protections. I have witnessed partners of 30+ years being “kicked out” of their home by the deceased partner’s kids who now want the house/assets. They’ve lost their partner and now the home they built together.

What’s more, as a result of this emotional stress, we see poor self-care (diet, sleep, physiology/appearance), increase in potential mental health issues, depression, increased risk of homelessness, substance abuse, parental discord, and strained parent/child relationships. Then the cycle continues and we have poorly adjusted adults from poorly managed separations who struggle to manage themselves in relationships and their relationship with themselves.

One other factor is the direct correlation between unequal separation outcomes, be that child and/or financial matters, and how that correlates to the rate of male suicide in the UK. Men make up around 80% of all suicides in the UK – ONS data puts this number at 18 (yes you read that correctly…18) men per day.

Following on from this, to what extent do you agree with the idea the law in this area needs to change from the point of view of somebody at the emotional coalface of separation?

I can speak from both professional and personal experience here that yes, absolutely and unequivocally, the law needs to change.

Societal views on relationships have evolved, our relationship with “relationships” and how we see them have developed too, along with how we live our lives. We are creatures who adapt and create our own environments. But, our human responses and emotional experiences to relationship breakdown, married or unmarried, haven’t and will not change. So, our laws need to evolve with the changing times as well – particularly ones so personal as Family Law.

The current status quo of how the law see’s unmarried cohabitants is not reflective of the times we live in. Modern family life has changed. There are more step-families and blended-families than ever before, more single parents. We have a huge volume of people who are not being heard, feel isolated from equality in this area, and are not attributed the same protections and opportunity to secure their future should their relationship breakdown. It needs to be better. Much better.

We call our industry “family law”, not “married law”.

It’s time to start looking at the families & people we seek to support and serve.

What might that change look like?

I witness and hear numerous points of view on what changes could be considered, from family law practitioners to the individuals themselves who are affected by the lack of clarity. I won’t comment on the legal changes, but from what I see and hear, the proposals put forward by the Women and Equalities Committee in their 2022 report on the issue of cohabitation are all widely and positively acceptable options.

From an emotional, real-world, practical standpoint, their proposals would go some way towards helping to lessen those fears unmarried cohabitants have. Reducing stress and worries at an already tumultuous time for people is paramount.

So much of those anxiety, fear, anger, etc for unmarried cohabitants is based on the “unknowns”, the “what ifs” and “I never knew” moments. By making changes we can have a direct positive impact on people’s mental health, reduce the costs to a wide range of services such as GPs/health, housing, childcare, etc all of which are already stretched. We can begin to bridge the communications gap, all by offering clarity and security of those unknown factors. Just like no-fault divorce has, it would afford an opportunity to further reduce potential conflict and contentiousness. It does not eradicate it, but it could be a positive instigator for a new and modern approach that reflects the world and family life we live in today.

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