Research conducted five years ago revealed that the majority of
the population erroneously believed that “common law” partners had
rights similar to those of a husband and wife.
Now Labour promises that, if re-elected, unmarried couples who
split up will win new rights to make divorce-style claims for
financial support and a share of the other partner’s
It is a welcome change – but what of the thousands of cohabiting
couples who have next to nothing to share out, least of all a
decent wage and a home of their own?
Improved rights for cohabitees ought to happen in tandem with
renewed efforts to prevent the crumbling of such partnerships in
the first place, especially when children are involved.
In the US, the Fragile Families and Child Well Being Study has
followed a cohort of nearly 5,000 families – 3,800 unmarried, 1,200
married – in 20 cities for five years. Among the issues is why,
facing similar odds, some relationships fail and others
The answers are a mix of the self-evident and the elusive.
Cohabitees are six times more likely to live in poverty,
handicapped by poor education and job skills, unemployment and
emotional illiteracy. Contrary to propaganda, many of these unions
in which children figure are not fleeting liaisons based on casual
sex. More than half the couples had the goal of marriage;
three-quarters of fathers provided financially and they and their
partners wanted them to be involved with their children.
Another US study has examined “underground fatherhood”. It looked
at unmarried fathers, aged 16 to 20, separated from their partners
and children. Seven in 10 saw their children at least once a week;
85 per cent provided informal financial help; more than half
provided regular daily hands-on help and 89 per cent of mothers
said the support of the father was crucial to their ability to keep
a (low-paid) job.
Even when the ties between adults fray, the bond with children
remains strong. The research reveals a potential maturity towards
relationships which, with support, might ensure long-term
The key issue for policymakers is to define what that support
involves. Inevitably, what comes to mind is a decent income; child
care; jobs and continual opportunities to “skill up”. It should
also tackle the open prejudice which young cohabiting couples
sometimes face from professionals who insist on seeing only half of
the equation – the teenage mother and child – and not the