Family Breakdown and its Consequences
The UK has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in the developed world. While liberal elites have often viewed the decline of the married family as a positive and liberating phenomenon, the reality is that the decline of the traditional family has had negative consequences for all concerned, but especially for those we should be most concerned about, young people.
Two trends in particular have been particularly destructive at the current time, cohabitation and widespread divorce.
The Detrimental Effects of Cohabitation
Cohabitation is the fastest growing living arrangement in the UK.(1) It is estimated that nearly 85% of all couples cohabit at some point during their relationship.(2)
Cohabitation is endorsed by many today as a sort of trial marriage, the rationale being that if couples live together before marriage they will gain a greater sense of their compatibility and subsequently enjoy a more successful marriage. Others argue that as long as people are in a committed relationship, whether or not they are married does not matter and, as long as children have loving parents, who cares whether or not they are married? The evidence tells a different story.
The majority of family breakdown now involves families where the parents are cohabiting. According to the Marriage Foundation, while cohabiting parents account for only 20.7% of couples, they contribute to more than half (51.4%) of the cases of family breakdown.(3) The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) report, Fractured Families found that ‘parents who cohabit are approximately three times more likely than those parents who are married to have separated by the time the child reaches the age of five.’(4) Of parents who remain together by the time their child turns 15, 93% are married.(5)
The instability associated with cohabiting unions has had a thoroughly detrimental effect upon the mental health of many young people. A study undertaken by the Marriage Foundation found that family breakdown is the single biggest influence on the mental health of young people.(6) The study, which examined mental health problems among10,929 fourteen year olds, found that:
Among intact married families, 20 per cent of 14 year olds exhibit high level of mental healthproblems, compared to 27 per cent among intact cohabiting families. Among divorced families,32 per cent exhibit problems, compared to 38 per cent among separated cohabiting families.(7)
Given the above evidence one would have thought that the British government would be going out of its way to promote marriage and support families staying together. Yet despite the fact that around 42% of marriages already end in divorce,(8) the government is considering legislating in favour of ‘no fault’ divorce. Those who support this, claim that it will spare the couple
unnecessary conflict caused by having to produce evidence of fault. What appears to have been neglected is the effect that divorce has upon children and the evidence shows that it is deeply harmful.
A research article, drawing on studies from around the world, published in the Journal of Clinical and Medical Genomics states:
It is well recognized that the divorce process affects the mental state of the children, including development of behavioral problems, negative self-concept, social problems, and difficulties in relationships with the parents. Among these children there is a higher frequency of depression, violence, learning and social deterioration, and high risk for suicidal attempts.(9)
An overview of studies published by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) highlighted numerous negative outcomes for children of parental divorce. These included the effects of divorce on family relationships, behaviour, likelihood of engaging in crime and mental health.
The study found that ‘(t)he primary effect of divorce…is a decline in the relationship between parent and child…Children in divorced families receive less emotional support, financial assistance, and practical help from their parents’.(10) The children of divorced parents are more likely to have behavioural problems than those from intact families. These behavioural problems include fighting with their peers, stealing, damaging property, getting drunk and engaging in risky sexual behaviour. Of the latter behaviour, the study notes: ‘Children’s approval of premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce rises dramatically, while their endorsement of marriage and childbearing falls’.(11)
Children of divorce
Children of divorced parents are more likely to have sex earlier with 25% having had intercourse by the time they were 14 years old, compared with 12% for those from intact married families. 36% of girls raised by a divorced parent were pregnant before marriage compared to 19% of those from intact married families. Daughters of divorced parents were also more likely to have had an abortion. The study noted that ‘one generation passes on its marital instability to the next’ with the children of divorce twice as likely to subsequently divorce themselves.(12)
Delinquency, violent crime and drug use where also found to be more common in those with divorced parents. The children of divorce were more likely to experience abuse and neglect and to suffer with depression. Tragically the MARRI study found that ‘the strongest demographic indicator of suicide is the family structure within which a person resides: the divorced family structure has the highest suicide rate’.(13)
The UK figures were remarkably similar, especially in relation to the sexual behaviour of those from separated or divorced families.The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found:
Children from separated families are also more likely to become parents at a young age: 25 per cent of women whose parents had separated became teenage mothers, compared with 14 per cent of those whose parents stayed together. Girls from divorced families between the ages of 7 and 16 are almost twice as likely to go on to become teenage mothers as those whose parents remained married.(14)
Lone Parenthood and Fatherlessness
The breakdown of marriage, the increase in out of wedlock births, and the often temporary nature of cohabiting unions has led to an increase in lone parenthood. The number of lone parent families has increased by 15.2% since 1996 with 21% of children now living in such families.(15)
Rabbi Lord Sacks
Some years ago the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, speaking in a House of Lords debate, stated:
[I]n the space of half a century we have become two nations that are divided into those who, as children, have and do not have the gift of growing up in stable, loving association with the two parents who brought them into being. According to copious research, those who have not will be disadvantaged in many ways. On average, they will do less well at school and have less chance of attending university. They will be less likely to find and keep a job. They will be less well off and less likely to form stable relationships of their own. They will be more prone to depression and its syndromes. They may even be less healthy. All that will be through no fault of their own but through the circumstances of their early childhood
The result is a deep and dangerous divide between two cultures, in one of which children are growing up without the support and presence of their natural fathers and often without constructive male role models. They are at risk of being robbed of the habits of the heart, the security and self-confidence, the discipline and restraint that they will need safely to negotiate the challenges of an ever-changing world.(16)
Research has certainly borne out the truth of the Chief Rabbi’s words and lone parenthood and fatherless families have taken their toll. A study by the think tank Civitas surveyed the effect of lone parenthood and fatherless families on mothers, fathers, children, teenagers and young adults. The report found that lone mothers were twice as likely to live in poverty, eight times as likely to live in a workless household and twelve times as likely to be receiving income support as those in two parent families.(17)
The same report revealed the extent to which non-resident biological fathers lose touch with their children following a divorce or separation. 20-30% of such fathers had not seen their children in the last year. Divorced men were significantly more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.(18)
The greatest casualties of lone parenthood and fatherlessness are, as ever, the children. Children living without their biological fathers are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation and are more prone to emotional and mental problems, with children from lone parent families twice as likely to have a mental health problem as those from intact families.
These children have more problems at school, a 50% greater risk of developing health problems and greater risk of suffering physical or sexual abuse. When they reach their teenage years they are more likely to engage in under-age sex and become teenage parents. They are three times as likely to be excluded from school and 25% more likely to have committed a crime in the last year. Children who grow up without their biological father in the home are more likely than those raised in an intact married family, to form unstable relationships in later life themselves.(19)
According to the CSJ, 76% of children and young people in custody had an absent father and 33% an absent mother.(20) The absence of a father leaves a vacuum which is often filled by someone with ‘street credibility’. Thus fatherlessness is a key driver of ‘gang culture’.(21) The CSJ also found that ‘boys who grew up apart from their biological fathers were at least two to three times more likely to end up in prison than those who had grown up with both parents’.(22)
Health and Happiness
The involvement of a father in their lives is important for both boys and girls as it contributes to their healthy development and happiness. As the CSJ notes:
Having a father involved in their lives boosts children’s self-esteem and confidence. School-aged children with good relationships with their fathers are less likely to experience depression, exhibit disruptive behaviour, or to lie than children without good father-child relationships. Similarly, girls who have fathers involved in their lives often have stronger self-esteem than girls who do not.(23)
When families break up, the child’s contact with their father is often the first casualty. MARRI found that ‘(b)y adolescence…fewer than half of children living with separated, divorced, or remarried mothers had seen their fathers at all in more than a year’.(24)
The phenomenon of lone parenthood and fatherlessness certainly ranks as one of the most tragic legacies of family breakdown.
Dangers of Step-families
When a relationship breaks down and one partner, usually the father, moves away, any children are frequently left to be raised by only one parent. Others however will acquire a new substitute father, sometimes their mother’s new husband but often simply her live-in boyfriend who has little interest in children who are not his. While some step-families are
loving environments, in others children are subject to terrible suffering.
Step-families have higher rates of abuse than do intact families. A study from Brazil of children with step fathers found that 34% had been physically abused compared with 17% of those with living with their biological father. When adjusted for various factors the study found that children in these families were 2.7 times more likely to experience abuse than those in intact families, with the abuse often perpetrated by the mother.(25)
The MARRI study referred to above found that the highest rates of both physical and sexual abuse occur in cohabiting step-families. It states:
Living with a stepfather increases a child’s likelihood of subjection to pre-pubertal sexual contact. The rate of sexual abuse of girls by their stepfathers is at least six or seven times higher, and may be as much as 40 times higher, than sexual abuse of daughters by their biological fathers who remain in intact families.
A study of 26 instances of fatal child abuse reported that 62 percent of perpetrators were the stepfathers of the abused children and that 81 percent of perpetrators were engaged in cohabiting relationships with the victimized child’s mother…Another study reported that children under age five were 50 times more like to suffer fatal abuse if they lived in homes with an unrelated adult (particularly a mother’s boyfriend) than if they lived in a biologically intac tfamily.(26)
MARRI further noted:
In Britain, fatal abuse of children of all ages occurs three times more frequently in stepfamilies than in intact married families.(27)
Benefits of Marriage
Given the abundant evidence that cohabitation, easy divorce and lone parenthood have brought negative outcomes for young people, teaching the benefits of marriage is an urgent need.
Those of us who defend the traditional vision of marriage as a lifelong union have all the evidence on our side.
The next generation
It is our duty to the next generation to make the immense rewards that marriage brings to the individual, the family and to society as widely known as possible. As Lord Sacks put it: ‘We cannot change the past but we can change the future’.(28)
Indeed, we can.
Piers Shepherd is a research and administrative assistant with Family Education Trust www.familyeducationtrust.org.uk
1 Office for National Statistics, Families and Households: 2017, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2017#number-of-families-in-the-uk-continues-to-grow-with-cohabiting-couple-families-growing-the-fastest
2 Centre for Social Justice, Fractured Families: Why stability matters, June 2013, https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/core/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/CSJ_Fractured_Families_Report_WEB_13.06.13.pdf
3 Harry Benson, Annual family breakdown in the UK, Marriage Foundation, March 2017, https://marriagefoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/MF-paper-Annual-family-breakdown.pdf
4 CSJ, Fractured Families, p. 13.
5 Harry Benson, The myth of ‘long-term stable relationships’ outside marriage, Marriage Foundation, May 2013, https://marriagefoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/pdf-020.pdf
6 Harry Benson and Stephen McKay, Family breakdown and teenage mental health, Marriage Foundation, November 2017, https://
7 Ibid, p. 1.
8 Office for National Statistics, Divorces in England and Wales: 2016, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/
9 Motti Haimi and Aaron Lerner, The Impact of Parental Separation and Divorce on the Health Status of Children, and the Ways to
Improve it, Journal of Clinical and Medical Genomics Volume 4 Issue 1, 2016, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Motti_Haimi2/
10 Patrick F. Fagan and Aaron Churchill, The Effects of Divorce on Children, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, 2012, https://www.frc.org/EF/EF12A22.pdf
11 Ibid, p. 15.
12 Ibid, p. 23.
13 Ibid, p. 45.
14 Centre for Social Justice, Fractured Families: Why stability matters, June 2013, https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/core/wp-content/
15 Office for National Statistics, Families and Households: 2017, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/
16 HL Hansard, 11 October 2012, col 1148, https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2012-10-11/debates/12101112000573/ChildDevelopment?highlight=lord%20sacks
17 Rebecca O’Neil, Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family, Civitas, September 2002, https://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/Experiments.pdf
18 Ibid, p. 6.
19 Ibid, p. 6-11.
20 Centre for Social Justice, Rules of Engagement: Changing the heart of youth justice, January 2012, https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/core/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/CSJ_Youth_Justice_Full_Report.pdf
21 Centre for Social Justice, Dying to Belong: An In-depth Review of Street Gangs in Britain, February 2009, https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/core/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/DyingtoBelongFullReport.pdf
22 CSJ, Fractured Families, p. 59-60.
23 CSJ, Fractured Families, p. 57.
24 Patrick F. Fagan and Aaron Churchill, The Effects of Divorce on Children, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, 2012, https://www.frc.org/EF/EF12A22.pdf
25 Gisele Caldas Alexandre et al, The presence of a stepfather and child physical abuse, as reported by a sample of Brazilian mothers in Rio
de Janeiro, Child Abuse & Neglect Volume 34, Issue 12, December 2010, 959-966,
26 Fagan and Churchill, Effects of Divorce on Children, p. 38.
27 Ibid, p. 39.
28 HL Hansard, 11 October 2012, col 1148, https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2012-10-11/debates/12101112000573/