The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Reasons Brits Break Up

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

As the prevalence of divorce has continued to rise in industrialized nations, many researchers have sought to better understand the reasons that couples choose to leave their unions. After all, the malign effects of divorce upon health, happiness, finances, and children have been well-documented, so many scholars now wish to understand how to help couples avoid such costly decisions. 

Adding to this literature is a new study by an international team of researchers who seek to understand why couples choose to leave both marriages and cohabiting relationships in Britain. “Breakdown of marriage and cohabitation is common in Western countries and is costly for individuals and society,” the researchers establish. Such breakdowns cause “significant distress” for the couples themselves and those around them, and also cost U.K. taxpayers an estimated £47 billion (in a single year, 2015). But few studies, the researchers say, have sought to understand the reasons that these couples give for ending their relationships. Seeking to fill this gap, the researchers conduct their study using data from Britain’s third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which was conducted between September 2010 and August 2012. Of this sample, 10.9% of men and 14.1% of women “reported the end of a live-in partnership . . . in the 5 years prior to the interview.” Of this number, 706 men and 1,254 women gave at least one reason for the end of that partnership, comprising the population the researchers wish to examine.

In this group, “The most commonly reported reasons reported for live-in partnership breakdown by both men and women were that they grew apart, followed by arguments, unfaithfulness/adultery, and lack of respect/appreciation.” More specifically, “Roughly two-thirds of both men and women cited one or more of the three most prevalent reasons: grew apart, arguments, and unfaithfulness/adultery.” Those who reported arguments or unfaithfulness “were equally likely to give the other common reasons but this was not the case for grew apart which had less overlap.” The reasons reported were similar for both married and cohabiting couples, though the researchers note that their data confirm “that marriages are of significantly longer duration than cohabitations.”  

In their closing discussion, the researchers comment, “The predominance of reasons reported such as grew apart, arguments, and lack of respect/appreciation suggest a deterioration in the quality of relationships and echoes research over recent decades reflecting the high expectations of self-fulfilment in contemporary marriage and cohabitation and the increasing unacceptability of emotionally and personally unsatisfying partnerships.” In other words, the 21st-century British share the modern understanding of the purpose of marriage—that it serves some kind of vague personal fulfillment, instead of more concrete purposes such as economic well-being, economic partnership, or childrearing. And as in so many other nations, such emotionally driven purposes are difficult for marriage to fulfill in the long-term—i.e., it takes more than emotional ties to keep couples together, a reality that many in our modern West find unacceptable.

(Kirsten Gravningen et al., “Reported Reasons for Breakdown of Marriage and Cohabitation in Britain: Findings From the Third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles [Natsal-3], PLoS ONE 12.3, e0174129.