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Short Report: Cohabitation in the UK, 2012 This product is designated as National Statistics

Released: 01 November 2012 Download PDF

Numbers cohabiting doubled since 1996

Cohabitation refers to living with a partner, but not married to or in a civil partnership with them. In 2012, there were 5.9 million people cohabiting in the UK, double the 1996 figure. Over the same period, the percentage of people aged 16 or over who were cohabiting steadily increased, from 6.5 per cent in 1996 to 11.7 per cent in 2012. This makes cohabitation the fastest growing family type in the UK.

Figure 1: People cohabiting in the UK, 1996 to 2012

Figure 1: People cohabiting in the UK, 1996 to 2012
Source: Labour Force Survey - Office for National Statistics

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Although there is no such thing as common law marriage in UK law, 58 per cent of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2006 thought that unmarried couples who live together for some time probably or definitely had a 'common law marriage' which gives them the same legal rights as married couples.

Biggest percentage increase in cohabitation is among the over 65s

Figure 2: Percentage of people in each group who are cohabiting, UK, 1996 to 2012

Figure 2: Percentage of people in each group who are cohabiting, UK, 1996 to 2012
Source: Labour Force Survey - Office for National Statistics

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Figure 2 shows the percentage of the population in each age group who are cohabiting. In 1996, 15 per cent of people aged 25 to 34 were cohabiting, and this rose to 27 per cent in 2012. This makes people in this age group the most likely to cohabit, often living together before getting married.

The percentage of those in the 35 to 44 year age group who are cohabiting also increased, from 7 per cent in 1996 to 15 per cent in 2012. This may be related to the increasing age at marriage: In 2010, the median age at first marriage was 30.8 for men and 28.9 for women in England and Wales, an increase of 2.5 years for both sexes since 1996. Four-fifths of people marrying were living together before their marriage1.

Younger age groups have had lower percentage increases in cohabitation between 1996 and 2012, while older age groups have higher percentage increases. The over 65s had the largest percentage increase in cohabitation of all age groups, despite the small percentage of people who do cohabit in this age group.

In 1996, only 0.6 per cent of people were cohabiting, but this increased nearly four-fold to 2.2 per cent of the over 65s by 2012. One reason for this increase is the rising percentage of people in this age group who are divorced. In 1996, 4.0 per cent of the over 65s in England and Wales were divorced compared with 8.6 per cent in 2010.

As a result of the changing age distribution of people cohabiting, their median age has risen by 3.8 years since 1996 to 34.3 in 2012.

Notes for Biggest percentage increase in cohabitation is among the over 65s

  1. Source: “Cohabitation and cohort analyses” reference tables.

Older people cohabiting are more likely to be divorced

Figure 3: Percentage of cohabiting people in each age group in the UK by marital or civil partnership status, 2012

Figure 3: Percentage of cohabiting people in each age group in the UK by marital or civil partnership status, 2012
Source: Labour Force Survey - Office for National Statistics

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Figure 3 shows the percentage of cohabiting people in each age group by their marital status, so for example, 96 per cent of cohabitees aged 25 to 34 have never been married. The percentage of people cohabiting who have never married decreases as age increases.

At the same time the percentage of cohabitees who have divorced or dissolved a civil partnership rises with age. In the 65 to 74 age group, over three-fifths of people cohabiting are in this category. The percentage of cohabitees who are widowed also starts to rise in this age group, and in the 75 or older age group nearly half are widowed.

Opposite and same sex cohabitation

Table 1: Opposite and same sex cohabiting couples in the UK, 1996 and 2012

Type 1996 2012 Percentage increase
Opposite sex cohabiting couples 1,459,000 2,893,000 98
Same sex cohabiting couples 16,000 69,000 345

Table notes:

  1. Source: Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics

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Table 1 illustrates how the number of same sex cohabiting couples has increased by 345 per cent between 1996 and 2012, faster than the 98 per cent growth in opposite sex cohabiting couples over the same period. By 2012, there were 2.9 million opposite sex cohabiting couples living in the UK compared with 69,000 same sex cohabiting couples.

39 per cent of opposite sex cohabiting couples have dependent children

Now we will focus solely on opposite sex cohabitation. In 2012, 39 per cent of opposite sex cohabiting couples had dependent children, compared with 38 per cent of married couples. Dependent children are those living with their parent(s) and either (a) aged under 16, or (b) aged 16 to 18 in full-time education, excluding children aged 16 to 18 who have a spouse, partner or child living in the household.

However these similar percentages mask differences between these people: Although married couples are more likely to have children than cohabiting couples, they tend to be older on average than their cohabiting counterparts so children may be older and have left home.

Cohabiting couples are more likely to be in the right age groups for childbearing. These two competing factors of age and likelihood of childbearing mean that a very similar percentage of married couples and opposite sex cohabiting couples have dependent children.

The percentage of opposite sex cohabiting couples who have dependent children has increased by 2 percentage points to 39 per cent since 1996 and this rise is reflected in birth registrations. In 1996, 21 per cent of birth registrations in England and Wales were to couples living at the same address but not married, and this rose to 31 per cent by 2010. Conversely the proportion of birth registrations to married couples fell over this period from 64 per cent in 1996 to 53 per cent in 2010.

Figure 4: Families with dependent children by family type and number of dependent children, UK, 2012

Figure 4: Families with dependent children by family type and number of dependent children, UK, 2012
Source: Labour Force Survey - Office for National Statistics

Notes:

  1. Less than 1 per cent of dependent children lived in civil partner or same sex cohabiting couple families in 2012. Therefore percentages for these families are not sufficiently robust to be published.

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Figure 4 shows that 54 per cent of opposite sex cohabiting couples with dependent children had only one child in 2012, higher than married couples. Conversely, married couples with dependent children have more children on average than other family types. These patterns partly reflect the stability of parental partnerships: Previous research has indicated that marital partnerships are more stable than cohabiting partnerships1.

Further, some couples cohabit, have children and then marry when children are older. In fact, the average age at first marriage for women (28.9 in England and Wales in 2010) is around a year later than the average age of women at the birth of their first child (27.8).

The median age of dependent children in cohabiting families is 5.8 and as such is younger than in other family types. In married or civil partner couple families the median age of dependent children is 9.0 and it’s 10.1 in lone parent families.

This is likely to be related to the age of their parents as cohabiting parents tend to be younger on average than married parents. In addition, some couples may marry after having one or two children and then go on to have others once they are married.

In 2012, the majority of cohabitees (56 per cent) had no children in their household, while 4 per cent had only non-dependent (adult) children.

Notes for 39 per cent of opposite sex cohabiting couples have dependent children

  1. Population Trends article "Do partnerships last? Comparing marriage and cohabitation using longitudinal census data"

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Further information

Media contact:

Tel: Media Relations Office    0845 6041858

Emergency on-call    07867 906553

Email: media.relations@ons.gsi.gov.uk

Statistical contact:

Tel: Karen Gask    +44 (0)1329 444022

Email: families@ons.gov.uk

Background notes

  1. Further information about cohabitation can be found in the Population Trends article Trends in cohabitation and marriage in Great Britain since the 1970s and further information about cohabiting couples having children can be found in Fertility and partnership status in the last two decades.

  2. This analysis is based on the Labour Force Survey household dataset, which is available from 1996 onwards. Statistics from the 2012 dataset were first published in August 2012.

  3. The Labour Force Survey is a household survey of people in the UK. It covers people in private households, NHS accommodation and students in halls of residence whose parents live in the UK. Such students are included through proxy interviews with their parents. However people in other communal establishments such as prisons are excluded.

  4. Results from the British Social Attitudes Survey are available on the British Social Attitudes Information System.

  5. Marriage and divorce statistics are available for England and Wales on the ONS website.

  6. Statistics about live births by registration type are available for England and Wales on the ONS website.

  7. Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available by visiting www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/assessment/code-of-practice/index.html or from the Media Relations Office email: media.relations@ons.gsi.gov.uk

Get all the tables for this publication in the data section of this publication .
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