Trends in Cohabiting and Marriage
by Jan Latten

More cohabiting, more children born to unmarried couples, more family break-ups among unmarried couples (‘divorceless divorce’), more flash divorces (‘flitsscheidingen”) and more lat-relationships are some of the important trends in the development of relationships and families. People tend to attach less value to formal guidelines that help to define married life, such as legal prescriptions and religious commandments. In order to get a complete picture of the development of relationships and families, it no longer suffices to use traditional, formal categories of status (‘burgerlijke staat’) or traditional transitional procedures like wedding and divorce. The informalisation of relationships and family life is part of a larger process of cultural transformation which has taken place in the past few decades.  The development of relationships and families is seen as a strictly private affaire, while restrictions imposed from the outside – in the form of marriage, parenthood or divorce – could only serve to limit the freedom individuals crave within these settings. What future trends can be deduced from this?

1. Introduction: informalisation of relationships, parenthood and divorce

In the peak year of 1970, 124,000 couples exchanged their wedding vows. The post-war babyboom generation collectively took the decision to tie the knot.  Since that peak year, the number of marriages per year has declined by a third. In the same period, the number of divorces has tripled, while the number of illegitimate children has increased by a factor of 14. The number of single people has grown by 350 percent.  These developments, however, do not necessarily mean that people are less inclined to commit to a relationship at some point in their lives. It does mean their attitude to relationships and family life has changed. There are now more phases in life in which people live on their own. Until the 1960s, the standard pattern was: leaving the parental home to get married, having children, staying married until either the man or the woman dies.  Nowadays, single life is seen as an important first step in the process of reaching adult status. As a temporary option, it has its own function in preparing people for life inside a relationship. The option of living alone is also available later in life. There is a growing willingness to end a disappointing marriage and return to single life.

A second important development is that a growing number of people choose cohabiting instead of marriage as the framework for family life. By turning down the option of the traditional marriage option, they opt to give shape to their relationship on a strictly individual – or if you like, ‘bilateral’ – basis.  There seem to be various degrees of informalisation in this process. Some relationships almost resemble an informal marriage arrangement (Forder 2000), for instance when the cohabitees formalise their relationship through a civil law contract. But it’s equally possible not to formalise anything at all.  Rights and duties, traditionally reserved for married couples, have not also been granted to cohabiting couples. Apart from that, new types of relationships have been introduced, for instance the registered partnership, which was introduced in 1998 to accommodate those who could not get married or did not want to do so. It is possible to interpret this development as being part of a broader process of emancipation, but it seems equally plausible to view it as a recognition of the right to give shape to one’s own relationship. In 2001, the opening of marriage to same-sex couples gave them an opportunity to formalise their relationships. Another important part of the embrace of a growing variety of relationship options is the view that married people should no longer be forced to live together - an obligation that was recently abolished.

These developments are about more than just the informalisation of marriage. They also demonstrate that relationships, parenthood and divorce are now seen as private affairs in which the state should be involved as little as possible.  This informalisation of relationships is likely to have far-reaching social and legal consequences. Legal thinking in fields like family law and divorce law is still largely based on the formal concept of marriage. Marriage creates obvious legal commitments for divorcees in matters like paternity, inheritance and alimony.  The informal behaviour of citizens, however, helps to undermine these legal certainties. The following case, discussed in a letter to the editors printed in the NRC Handelsblad of February 29, 2004, is a case in point: “During our seven-year period of cohabiting my savings have grown more quickly than those of my partner. There was no registered partnership or any other form of contract. There are two children. The house was and remains my personal property, I also paid all utility bills and local tax bills. The disparate growth in savings is based on differences in salary. After ending our relationship, my partner demands part of the extra savings I accrued during our relationship. Is there a chance that this claim may be enforceable, even without a formal contract?” A similar situation arises when one of the cohabiting partners dies suddenly. Without a living will or a civil law contract, any relatives of the deceased would be able to claim the house, if that was his legal property. The other partner would be left with nothing.

This development raises a number of new problems. It is therefore the object of an increasing number of studies, both legal, demographic and other. Social-economic research has shown that relationships help to determine the income level of individuals. Relationship break-up, on the other hand, can contribute to a serious loss of income and savings. It would be interesting to know whether there is a difference here between the consequences of marriage break-up and the break-up of cohabiting relationships – what are the financial consequences of  relationship break-up to cohabiting couples? In order to gain a greater understanding of these issues, the CBS started a research project in 2003, aimed at mapping out the dynamics of the links between work, material well-being and family life. 

2. How does informalisation of demographic behaviour fit in with cultural changes?

There is a strong practical correlation between developments in demographic behaviour and social developments. Changing social circumstances can lead to changes in behaviour as well as norms. Different circumstances help to render traditional norms obsolete. New norms arise to take their place. The question is how the informalisation of relationships and family life fits into the bigger pattern of cultural change in the last few decades. In her inaugural lecture entitled ‘Big Mother’ (2003), Pessers points to the personalisation of the public sphere. “The citizen has withdrawn from the public square, in a ‘Rückzug ins Private’. From there, he approaches the public spheres with personal complaints dressed up as subjective rights.” Pessers is referring to matters like the cult of personality, the desire for authenticity, for genuine living, for a recognition of the hyper-personal identity and the revolution of feeling. She concludes that “the emancipated individual has liberated himself from – often suffocating – norms that were imposed by society, religion, tradition or the state. Instead of that, he now seeks an authentic, individualised morality, making his own moral judgements.  Flowing from this personalised morality is a desire for a personalisation of decision-making about matters of life, death, and happiness. Every human being has the right to shape his life the way he sees fit, based on his own moral judgements.”

This moral change is also evident in changes in demographic behaviour of the citizen, especially where it affects his relationships and family life.  Here too we notice a move towards a more authentic, hyper-individualised decision-making process, away from the formal frameworks that used to shape the decision-making process in matters of relationships and family life. It also fits a number of other great social developments, especially secularisation and emancipation, that are often used to give explain certain cultural changes. On a demographic level, one might want to include the introduction of the birth control pill.

These social conditions form the basis for individualisation, hedonism and the growing sense that man is the master of his own destiny. Secularisation means norms can no longer be imposed by the church or religion in general, but only by enlightened ideas. The disappearance of an otherworldly perspective reduced man to a creature living only for the here and the now. This means relationships are tested on the basis of their value to people here and now.  Emancipation has left women more capable of shaping their own future. This ability to fend for themselves means they are also more able to change their lives. A relationship to them is no longer about money or financial dependence. Birth control has given man the opportunity to decouple procreation from sexuality. Together with the introduction of the morning after pill, the birth control pill has helped to trigger the second demographic transition. This has strongly influenced demographic growth trends.

Almost as important as this is the fact that the availability of effective contraceptives has changes sexual conceptions of right and wrong. The restrictive norms, aimed at controlling biological urges and preventing unwanted pregnancies, lost their function. From a social perspective, unmarried cohabitation became an unproblematic phenomenon.  Marriage itself was detached from the previously self-evident link with parenthood. In the field of relationships, the emotional concept of ‘romantic love’ gained in importance. Relationships become more of a bilateral and less of a social matter. “Romanticism, the container concept referring to a whole range of modern sensibilities, is more important in shaping people’s identity than the bourgeois concepts of profession, class, and rank.” (Van Stokkum, 1997)

This decline in the relative status of traditional bourgeois concepts might also help to explain the declining status of the ‘civil status’. Young people’s tendency not to accept any adulterous behaviour is probably more a function of this romantic attitude than of a traditional view of relationships. It rather shows that young people are developing a new norm for relationships, namely that any relationship should be based on bilateral and emotional grounds, and that it can only be based on those grounds.  This also helps to legitimise the increase in relationship break-ups when the first cracks appear in the emotional foundation. It helps to detach relationships from their wider social context.

It might be important to note that some also claim to have observed a similar detachment from institutionalised contexts in the field of attitudes to work.  Sennett (2000) thinks that modern man’s character is shaped by his attitude to work. Modern man is less attached to his physical workspace and to his employer, and has a chequered career pattern. This makes him more flexible and aimless – the two main characteristics of modern society according to Sennett. “How doe we decide what’s of enduring value in ourselves, in an impatient society that only lives for the here and now? How to pursue long term goals in an economy that only cares about the short term?” he asks. It’s far from implausible that a similar change in attitude would also manifest itself in the personal field of human relationships. Add to that the fact that, because of emancipation, increasing numbers of women have joined the workforce, and it becomes clear that an increasing part of the population is involved in a process of attitudinal transformation that in turn affects the way people deal with relationships. 

There are many obvious links between the introduction of birth control pills, secularisation, and the modern economy. All emphasise the here and the now (instead of the longer term), all aim for perfection (instead of resigning oneself to an imperfect reality) and all prefer enjoyment over self-sacrifice. Together, they have caused the Dutch to get less attached to traditional ties of family, marriage and children. At the same time, they have become increasingly focused on their careers and on security of status and income as well as on the ability to enjoy life without any limitations. Such a cultural transformation can have profound consequences for the way in which people deal with relationships, children and family life. The changing attitudes towards marriage and unmarried cohabitation should be seen in this light. People care less about the formal prescriptions, the legal and religious arrangements and commandments that used to set the boundaries for this institution. The duties attached to it are viewed as undesirable limits on personal freedom.

These changing attitudes also affect the other key moments of a demographic cycle. Informal relationships can also be ended informally. And maybe people do want to have children anyway. More and more children are born out of wedlock. Here too we find a shift away from formal frameworks. The way to interpret this development is that people view not just relationships but even parenthood as an exclusively personal affair. The consequences of entering into relationships and parenthood are limited to the private sphere, sometimes even the individual sphere. It’s no surprise then that the government recently legalised the option for children to take on their mother’s maiden name. At the same time, taking the father’s family name is now only possible if the father legally recognises the child as his. Married couples also have the option of giving the child the mother’s maiden name.  Even wedding ceremonies have become more informal. The Amsterdam municipal authorities have decided to give citizens a greater say in the structuring of their wedding day. It is now possible to let someone from among their circle of friends and family conduct the ceremony, or even a sports star or other celebrity.  

The increasing informalisation of relationships and family life is a result of an increasing desire for personal autonomy. It is a  product of the individualisation of attribution of meaning that has gained such a prominent status in modern society. The increase in the number of informal options means it’s no longer possible to give a complete picture of demographic behaviour they way it would be possible if we only looked at traditional categories like the ‘civil status’ (‘burgerlijke staat’), marriage, births within marriage and divorce. The empirical reality of lifestyles coincides less and less with these traditional categories and transitions. Reality is more diverse, more complex. When two unmarried cohabitees with one or more children break, the personal emotional consequences are the same as for any married couple.  But what about their rights and duties? Has the biological father, even if present in the child’s life, been recognised legally as the father of the child? And how long have the couple actually been together?  When do count a relationship as real? This affects any claims for a share of pension rights. 

On a more general level, what is the size of the total unmarried cohabiting population? What are the chances of unmarried couples splitting up (an informal divorce)? How many divorcees tend to cohabit with a new partner, and how many remarry? What can we say about the civil status of unmarried cohabitees and what does the process of informal family development look like? In short, what can we say about developments in informal relationships and family life, based on available facts and figures? Only by getting a clearer view of these facts and figures can we get a better overview of new developments in other areas, especially of the legal implications. 

 3. New demografics

In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to distinguish three different aspects of demographic behaviour, namely measurability, formal versus informal status of behaviour and new variations of demographic behaviour. 

A wedding ceremony is mearurable, but it has increasingly become a mere administrative transition. The transition is less and less an actual change in the composition of a household. After all, most married couples already live together as cohabitees. In order to measure the actual transition, we need to focus increasingly on actual changes in composition of the household. This can be gathered from looking at municipal administrative records, which would show a couple sharing one single address.  From 1995 onwards, it’s possible to piece these records together based on the Municipal Basic Administration of personal records (MBA, in Dutch: GBA). Using these records, the CBS can get an accurate picture of the number of households in The Netherlands, as well as the relative importance of various categories of households, like married and unmarried couples.

Household categories are based on the place that people occupy within the household. In combination with the family-legal relationships and civil status of the people involved we can discern seven different categories: married cohabiting, unmarried cohabiting, single-parent, child, single, other members of the household, and other. The category of unmarried cohabitees contains all civil states in which partners are unmarried. There can also be combinations of various categories, such as a household in which one partner is divorced and the other is never-married.

In spite of this, not everything is measurable. Moving out to go and live on your own after having spent your entire life as a child in your parents’ house is a clearly discernable and measurable transition. The same goes for those who move out of their married household after a divorce. But moving out of a house which you shared with someone else without entering into a legally recognised relationship complicates matters considerably. Was it an unmarried cohabiting couple, and is this an informal divorce, or was there no relationship to begin with, in which case it’s not relevant to talk about divorce? Even more difficult to measure are emotional transitions involved with relationships. This refers to categories like getting a ‘steady’ boyfriend or girlfriend or entering into a ‘living apart together’ (lat) relationship. So far, demographic studies have paid scant attention to these categories, perhaps rightly so.

This moves us onto a second aspect of demographic behaviour: informalisation. By looking at household categories, the formal as well as the informal transitions can be sketched out. This can also be done by way of focussing on the nature of family-legal relationships (or lack thereof) and the civil status. It’s possible for an unmarried couple to cohabit and enlarge their household by having a baby (informal two-parent family) without creating a formal new tie of paternity. If the couple marries or enters into a registered partnership, it means a transition from an informal to a formal family arrangement. The actual household composition doesn’t change. It’s purely an administrative change (change of civil status). On the other hand, the change in administrative status could be the precursor to an actual transition: married people who have been legally separated for some time, sometimes only moves into separate accommodation after some time has elapsed.

Finally the third aspect: new transitions based on new behaviour. Here we can think of two men getting married to each other, where both have been married before, but to women. Or two partners who change their marriage into a registered partnership in order to facilitate a divorce without a court order through a so-called ‘flash divorce’ (‘flitsscheiding’). More opportunities for demographic transition inevitably leads to greater variation in demographic behaviour.  

4. The facts about marriage

4.1 Long-term trend: fewer marriages

Since 1970, there has been a downward long-term trend in the number of marriages (graph 1). This trend is culturally determined and points to a change in the appreciation of marriage as an institution.  Short-term fluctuations don’t point to changes in this long-term trend, but rather point to the conjunctural sensitivity of demographic behaviour, in the same way as is also observable for divorce and births. A declining economic outlook reduces people’s willingness to get married; a rise in economic confidence increases people’s willingness to tie the knot. The conjunctural sensitivity of marriage also points to a changing social function of the marriage ceremony. Increasingly, potential married couples already live together. Marriage is no longer a precondition for cohabitation. The couple can decide to move the wedding date forward or back as they please, depending on their financial situation or their financial expectations.  More people get married in economic boom times than in periods of economic depression.

The conjunctural sensitivity of marriage was evident in the year 2003. The number of marriages is lower than in 2002. The post-Millennium pessimism that is obvious among consumers with some delay is also starting to influence the number of marriages in 2003. The extra same-sex marriages that are included in the count since 2001 keep the level a little higher, but not enough to prevent the overall decline. In 2001 2500 same-sex couples got married; by 2003, this number had decreased to 1500. Without these same-sex marriages, there would have been a mere 81 thousand new marriages in total in 2003. As far as same-sex marriage is concerned, it is not yet clear whether the initial ‘stampede’ effect has already worn off. Based on the situation in 2003, same-sex marriages make up around 2 percent of all new marriages.

Another factor that could influence the total number of marriages is the demographic age distribution of a population. In paragraph 4.3, we will discuss this matter further.

Apart from these factors, it is also important to note that fewer and fewer people in Holland say marriage matters to them. Market research agency Trendbox has shown that, while in 1992 68 percent of all Dutchmen and women said marriage mattered to them, in 2003 this number had declined to 45 percent. This changing attitude translates itself not just into a declining in the number of new marriages, but also in a decline in the chance of a person ever entering into a marriage. For men, the chance of ever entering into a marriage had decreased from 90 percent in 1970 to around 65 percent in 2003. For women, the equivalent numbers are 95 percent and 71 percent. If we combine these two sets of figures, it means that one third of the population will never enter into a marriage during the course of his or her lifetime.

4.2 Decreasing chance of a second marriage

Among the number of annual marriage candidates there’s a growing number of people for whom this is not the first marriage. In 1970, 12 percent of all marrying men were entering into a second or further marriage. By 2003, this percentage had risen to 23. For women, the similar increase is from 8 to 19 percent.  It means there is a concentration of marriages among a smaller and more selective part of the population, namely those who were already married before.

This does not mean, however, that the chance of a second or further marriage increases for everyone. As graph 2 clearly shows, the chance that a divorced man will remarry has decreased from 78 percent in 1970 to 54 percent in 2003. Among divorced women, this same chance decreased from 69 to 44 percent. The chance of a second or further marriage for widowers and widows also decreased, from 16 to 7 percent and from 4 to 2 percent.

4.3 Fewer marriages at a younger age

In spite of all of this, the number of married people as a share of the total population has only decreased marginally, from 47 percent (1970) to 43 percent (2003). The absolute number of married people has even risen since the 1970s and 80s. Since the 1990s, this number has stabilised at around 7,1 million. This doesn’t mean there are no more people getting married. The stabilisation of the total number of married people has to do with the fact that the sizeable post-war birth cohorts (who all tended to get married at a younger age) are now growing older. On the other hand, there are fewer young people coming out of the relatively small birth cohorts of the 1970s and 80s. These young people are getting married less often (and later in life) than the older generations. This combination of factors means that larger numbers of old people, many of whom got married, and smaller numbers of young people, fewer of whom are getting married, are cancelling each other out. The net effect is a levelling-off of the overall number of married people.

Because of this generation-effect, the changes in the total number of married people as a share of the overall population have not yet become visible. These changes do become clearly visible when we compare the development in the relative number of people getting or staying married at a younger age and at an older age. In 1970, 55 percent of all people in their twenties were married, against 17 percent in 2003. Among people in their thirties, the decline was from 88 percent to 57 percent. The older the age group, the smaller the decline. Among people over 60, there’s no decline at all. The fact that the number of married people as a share of the age cohort of 60 and older has stabilised at around 70 does not mean, however, that there have been no changes among this age cohort.  In reality, there have been two contrary developments. The number of never married people aged 60 and older has decreased since 1970, to just 6 percent. But the number of divorcees has also risen sharply. In other words, the number of people who are or have been married at least once in their life has increased to 94 percent. The fact that this doesn’t show in the overall statistics, is mainly due to the rising number of once-married people over sixty who are currently divorced. This means the overall share could end up at around 70 percent.  

What can be deduced from this is that a further decline in the percentage of married people among the over-sixties will only become evident in the next decades, when this generation, which married en masse, is replaced by generations of which only two out of three will ever get married. The percentage of married people over sixty will be significantly lower then, because an increasing part of the over-sixties population never got married and an equally increasing part will belong to the category of the “once divorced.”

4.4 Fewer married people because of postponement, cancellation and divorce

By 2003, next to 7,1 million married people, the category of never-married people was equally significant in size with 7,3 million people. This last figure, however, does include children. If we exclude the age group of 0-19, the number of never-married people shrinks to around half its original size, or 3,4 million, mainly 20-64 year olds (3,2 million). Among those aged 65 and over, a generation in which almost everyone got married, there are hardly any never-married people. Obviously, we do find a fairly sizeable group of one-married widowed people. Among 20 to 64 year olds, the percentage of married people has dropped from 77 percent in 1970 to 58 percent in 2003. This drop is caused, first of all, by the fact that young people tend to choose to live on their own first, and decide to cohabite with a partner only later in life. The second reason is that fewer people decide to take the step from cohabitating to actually getting married. Of the 70 percent of the population that will, at some point in their lives, enter into a marriage, the majority is likely to have spent some time cohabiting. The average age for a first marriage has risen since 1960, from 25 to 32 for men, and from 23 to 29 for women. A first marriage has obviously become something for the over-thirties. A sizeable majority of the 30 percent of the population that never marries, either permanently stays in an unmarried relationship, or breaks up this unmarried relationship. Only a small percentage never actually have a partner in life. Combined with the postponement effect this new life cycle means that, on average, people tend to spend more years as unmarried persons. Those who postpone the wedding day and those who put it off for good together have caused the share of unmarried people in the age group of 20 to 64 to increase from 19 percent in 1970 to 32 percent in 2003.

The third main cause of the decline in the number of married people is divorce. A rise in the number of people who break up an existing marriage, combined with a decline in the number of people who decide to get remarried after a divorce, has contributed to a fall in the number of married people. The number of divorcees as a percentage of the total population has increased from 1 to 8 percent in the past three decades. This sharp increase is indicative of the rise in the number of relationship break-ups. One should take into account that the number of divorcees gives no real indication of the chance of a relationship break-up in general.  The chance of a divorce at some point during the life cycle is significantly higher than a snapshot overview might suggest. The number of people in the age group of 20 to 64 who are either widower or widow, has even dropped from 3 percent to 2 percent.

When we look at the entire population age 20 and older in 2003, there were 880 thousand widowers and widows, and 939 thousand divorcees. Among the adult population, for every seven married people there are three unmarried people, almost one divorcee and nearly one widowed person. It’s important to note, by the way, that ‘being married’ doesn’t necessarily mean living with one’s married partner. It’s possible people no longer living under the same roof, without having changed their civil status. Often there is a significant lapse of time between ending a relationship and finalising the divorce. An analysis by Steenhof and Harmsen (2002) has shown that of the married couples who split up in 2000 and were no longer living together as of January 1, 2001, more than half were still legally married. If children are involved in a divorce, that creates a single-family situation in which the single parent is still married. Research by Schapendonk-Maas (2002) has demonstrated that in nearly one in every ten native-Dutch single-parent families, the parent is still married. In section 7, we will take a closer look at this phenomenon. Apart from this, as of 2003, there were another 80 thousand married people who, for whatever reason, were living on their own.

5. The facts about unmarried cohabitating

5.1 Unmarried cohabiting an option to almost everyone

Compared to 1995, the first year for which comparable data are available for cohabitees, the number of unmarried couples had risen sharply by 2003, from over 500 thousand then to over 700 thousand now. On the other hand, the number of married couples has decreased slightly, from 3437 thousand to 3425 thousand. Unmarried couples now make up 17 percent of all couples. Among 30 to 34 year olds, this rises to almost 40 percent. For the older age groups the percentage is significantly lower. This is because many cohabitees, if they are still together by then, tend to get married in due course. Still even among 40 to 44 year olds, one in seven couples is unmarried. This figure is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that among these will be many couples one or both of whom have been married at least once before. We should also take into account that these are generations who got married before cohabiting became fashionable.

Among people over fifty, those who were in their twenties in the 1970s, unmarried cohabiting was relatively rare. Unmarried cohabiting only started in that decade. The diffusion theory by Rogers presupposes a pattern of diffusion from an innovating small section of the population through a larger section of early adopters to an even larger early majority to a late majority. This is how unmarried cohabiting first became fashionable among a selective group of highly educated, progressive and non-religious young people, after which it slowly spread to a majority of the population. Even during the 1970s, only one of every ten 20-24 year olds who got married had ever cohabited. Usually people would married ‘straight from the parental home’. In the 1990s three-quarters of 20-24 year olds who got married had cohabited. By 2000, nine out of ten 25-29 year old brides had cohabited with their marriage partner.

After more than 30 years of normative change, only a small group of young people still marry ‘straught from the parental home’. They are usually of immigrant descent and/or orthodox believers. Young people first spend some time living on their own or cohabiting. If we combine these data with the fact that in the end seven out of ten women will marry at least once in their life, we can deduce from it that more than six out of ten women will have cohabited before their marriage. We can also deduce from it that only a very small percentage of all women will spend their entire life alone. Nearly three out of ten women will never get married, but that doesn’t mean they will always be alone. The conclusion is that nearly nine out of ten women will spend at least some time in an unmarried cohabiting relationship, a significantly higher percentage than those who will get married at some point in their life. For men there is a gradual difference, but the trend is the same. With that, unmarried cohabiting seems to have become an option for almost everyone, even if it is just once in their lives.

The fact that the number of marriages is declining and that less value is attached to marriage does not mean that the old ideal of a relationship is also disappearing. On the contrary, within a cultural development which stresses the hyper-individual, the authentic and the real (an emotions culture) there seems to be room for relationships which do not need official recognition. It is the qualitative satisfaction which the relationship provides, which provides is main source of justification. More and more people opt for relationship types other than marriage which are less controlled by governmental or religious prescriptions.

Of the couples that do get married, more than half opt for a civil wedding combined with a church blessing. Since almost two third of the population will get married one day, it seems around one third of the population still opts for a church wedding. 

5.2 Unmarried cohabiting in a later life phase tends to be a permanent choice

Of all unmarried cohabiters aged 62 or younger, around half expect to marry one day. One in ten isn’t sure it would change anything or just want something different, and four in ten think they won’t get married ever. These expectations are largely based on the life phase people are in. Of 18 to 24 year old cohabiting women, nearly eighty percent wants to get married at some point in the future. Among cohabiters in their late twenties, this percentage drops to 64 percent. Around this age, three our of ten cohabiting couples choose to remain unmarried cohabiters.

For cohabiting women aged forty and older the picture is in fact the reverse. Not more than one in five of this age group expect to get married. Nearly three quarters opt for cohabiting as a permanent solution. At a young age the majority consider an informal relationship to be a temporary situation. Cohabiting people at a later stage of life tend to consider the informal option as permanent. Obviously, this may have something to do with people’s previous relationships. In the majority of cases (55 percent) of unmarried couples of which the woman is between 40 and 62 years old, at least one of the two partners is divorced.

To a certain extent the lessened interest in marriage in later life also has to do with a selection effect. This concerns the minority of cases who didn’t like marriage as an option earlier in life and who still don’t do so now.  Irrespective of age or stage or life people are in, around seven or eight out of ten people who say they expect to remain unmarried think that marriage wouldn’t add anything to their relationship. This might be evidence of the fact that people increasingly think that the value of a relationship is found in its emotional significance to the partners.  Answers like ‘partner doesn’t want to get married,’ ‘we don’t want to make that sort of commitment’ and ‘we are opposed to marriage in principle’ all fit into that pattern.

5.3 Contract instead of marriage

In spite of this, it isn’t true that those who choose to remain unmarried don’t want any type of legal commitment, probably because much current public and private law demands some form of legal recognition of a relationship in order to qualify for certain legal benefits. Most of these couples tend to go for the contract option, drawn up by a notary . From the Onderzoek Gezinsvorming 2003 (CBS) we can conclude that nearly half of all unmarried couples have signed a cohabiting contract. Registered partnerships tend to be relatively rare. One in six unmarried is planning to draw up a contract, and another sixth is in two minds about it. This means a clear majority of couples opt to have a basic set of agreements fixed in a contract. Even so, one in six couples has no plans whatsoever to formalise their relationship. This applies especially to young couples. The older unmarried cohabiting couples get, the more likely they are to opt for the contract option. They usually don’t intend to get married and tend to see unmarried cohabiting as a permanent state of affairs.

5.4 Unmarried cohabiting: the virtual reality of civil status

Since unmarried cohabiting refers to a common household of partners who are not married to each other, the link to the civil status of each partner isn’t always easy to detect. The civil status sometimes points to a life prior to the relationship rather than to the current relationship itself. Based on five different civil status options (unmarried, married, divorced, widowed, registered partnership), couples could have a number of different combinations. An unmarried cohabiting couple could exist of a divorced woman and a widower, or of a divorced man living with a divorced woman. A married person isn’t necessarily always living with the person he’s married to; he could also be cohabiting with a new partner. The degree to which various combinations of civil status options occur, points to a divergence between a typology based on civil status and family-law based relationships and a typology based on actual household situations. In other words, there is an increasing difference between formal civil status and the informal empirical reality of the actual lifestyle.

Graph 2 contains an overview of the various combinations as registered in 2003. There are around 700 thousand unmarried couples, of which nearly half a million couples of two never married individuals. This doesn’t preclude the possibility of one or both of them having previously cohabited with another partner whom they informally divorced.  There are another 189 thousand couples of whom at least one of the partners is formally divorced. Among these couples there are 67 thousand of whom both partners are divorced; 18 thousand couples consisting of a divorced person and a widowed person, and another 4 thousand couples consisting of a divorced person and a person who is still formally married to another person. In all, 256 thousand divorced people are involved in an unmarried cohabiting relationship. Based on 939 thousand divorced people in 2003, we ma assume that at any one moment around a quarter of divorced people will be involved in such a relationship.

The number of widowed people that are involved in an unmarried cohabiting relationship is not nearly as great: only 38 thousand of 880 thousand widowers and widows enter into such relationships – only 1 on 25. There are another 8 thousand married people who don’t live with their married partner but with another, unmarried partner.  The number of couples in a registered partnership is limited, only 13 thousand in total. Included in those are a large number of temporary partnerships, since several thousand couples a year choose this option as an intermediate step to a ‘flash divorce’.

6. Informal parenthood on the rise

Only several decades ago marriage was the norm for parenthood. Births outside marriage were relatively rare. In 1960, only 1 in 30 firstborn children was born out of wedlock. It usually involved babies of young, single women with little formal education who got pregnant involuntarily. Because of the unmarried status of the mother, the child was usually given up for adoption. Since then, the number of births out of wedlock has risen considerably. Nowadays, illegitimate children are usually born to unmarried cohabiting couples who choose to start the family phase of their relationship outside a formal setting.

A growing number of unmarried couples no longer sees the arrival of a child as a reason to get married. That why, apart from very young mothers, many unmarried mothers now tend to be higher educated, older mothers who are living with a partner. The shame attached to such a birth in the past has almost disappeared. The percentage of out-of-wedlock births is an indication of the extent to which the diffusion of unmarried births has spread. Today, 40 percent of all firstborn children is born out of wedlock. Marriage is fast losing its status as condition sine qua non for parenthood.

To put this in the context of the diffusion process as discussed by Rogers, the idea of uncoupling marriage from child birth has reached early majority status. The increasing tendency to have children out of wedlock does not mean that people now also want to sever the link between marriage and parenthood. A number of couples decided to get married before the arrival of a second child. Of all second and further children born in 2003, 23 percent were born out of wedlock. Remarkably, the number of second and further children born to unmarried parents in the period 1995-2003 has risen relatively sharply. This could be an indication of the fact that the norm of staying unmarried is spreading at an increasing pace. It means the informalisation of parenthood has reached a stage where the very concept of family life has become a subject of diffusion.  Even the informal second child has reached the stage where an early majority are now using it as a norm.

With the extension into the sphere of parenthood, unmarried cohabiting has become more than just a trial run for marriage. This further strengthens the process of undermining the importance attached to formal recognition of family life.  Not just relationships but even family life is increasingly seen as a private affaire, to be arranged on a individual and personal basis. The consequence of this is that formal arrangements, such as those concerning parenthood, have become less self-evident. Today, in a significant number of cases, the father is unknown to local birth registrars. In most cases this lack of administrative knowledge is rectified later on through the formal recognition of the child by the father, followed in some cases by a marriage ceremony. Still, this is unlikely to happen in every case, with potentially far-reaching consequences. If a father doesn’t legally recognise the child as his before marrying the mother, the biological father would formally be registered as the stepfather.   

Apart from the point of legal recognition after birth of the child, the number of informal two-parent families as a share of the total number of couples has almost tripled between 1995 and 2003. The number of formal two-parent families (married couples with children), on the other hand, has decreased. In 2003, 10 percent of all two-parent families were unmarried parents; in 1995, it was just 4 percent. In the case of both formal and informal families, it’s not just biological parent couples. It could also involve formal or informal step-parent couples. Apart from that, this approach also shows that when it comes to family life, there seems to be an ongoing process of increasing informalisation, which involves the decoupling of parenthood from its associated rights and responsibilities, for instance from traditional legal frameworks.

7. Broken relationships

7.1 Number of informal divorces exceeds formal divorces

Divorce provides a sharp contrast to the notion of lifelong marital fidelity. When it comes to marital fidelity, the official legal text used at wedding ceremonies still states that “spouses owe each other loyalty, help and comfort.” (article 81 of the Civil Code) The text  does not contain any references to a time limit, and mainly stresses the acceptance of various clearly formulated obligations. Since the seventies, fewer couples have formalised their relationships within the framework of this legal obligation. An increasing number of couples preferred unmarried cohabiting to marriage. In cases where couples did accept the legal duties associated with marriage, an increasing number have interpreted those obligations as de facto temporary.

The number of divorces has risen sharply, especially in the nineteen seventies. Nowadays, almost three out of ten marriage end in divorce. In 1970, the top year for weddings, there were only 10 thousand divorces in The Netherlands. Five years later that number had doubled to 20 thousand. One of the most significant moments of increase of the number of divorces was the introduction of the Income Support Law, which helped women to choose the state instead of their husband as the main breadwinner. The next period, until the mid-eighties, saw a more gradual increase. In 2001, the total number of divorces hit a new record high level of 37 thousand. In January 2002, there were even more divorces than marriages. In spite of that, the number of formal divorces dropped that year to 32 thousand.

This drop does not, however, give an accurate picture of the number of marriage ending in divorce. A new, informal route to divorce has appeared on the scene: the flash divorce. Flash divorces are two-step divorces. Married people apply to have their marriage changed to a registered partnership with the aim of then having that dissolved at short notice. These new-style divorces don’t figure as proper divorces in the statistics, which falsely suggests that 2002 saw a drop in the number of divorces compared to 2001. If we add the number of flash divorces to the overall number, 2002 registers the same number of divorces as 2001, namely 37 thousand. 

Preliminary figures for 2003 show that the number of flash divorces has increased further, and that the number of official divorces has shown a corresponding drop. The overall number of divorces stayed at the 2002 level. Apparently, people increasingly prefer a quick marriage annulment procedure without a judge having to interfere. As with the tendency to make family life arrangements without government interference, so to the flash divorce could be seen as an expression of an ever increasing tendency to arrange all matters to do with relationships without government interference.  In that case, the annulment of the marriage is more a bilateral affaire between to ex-spouses, though the registration of the annulment still requires government consent.

As far as sheer quantities are concerned, the number of informal divorces – the break-up of unmarried cohabiting couples – is far more important than the number of flash divorces. With an increase in unmarried cohabitation, the number of such divorces will obviously also grow. Various studies have shown that the chance of a relationship break-up is higher for this group than for married couples. The Onderzoek Gezinsvorming of 1998 showed that for unmarried cohabiting couples, the chance of a relationship break-up is twice as high as for married couples. Among women who entered into a cohabiting relationship in the early nineties, nearly 18 percent had split up with their partner four years later; for married women this was 9 percent. 

Since unmarried couples usually don’t formally register their break-ups, the number of divorces among them is not easy to guess. What was never formally joined together can’t be formally separated. With unmarried persons registered as living at the same address it’s not always clear whether they are in a cohabiting relationship. Both the size of the group of unmarried cohabiters as the size of the group of cohabiters who break off their relationship in a given year can therefore never be more than guessed at.  CBS household statistics form the basis of this ‘guestimate‘ of the number of ex-cohabiters. Steenhof and Harmsen (2002) show that annually, apart from 35 thousand formal divorces, there are another 65 thousand informal divorces involving unmarried cohabiting couples. The annual number of divorces and separations of unmarried couples thereby exceeds 100 thousand. In other words, every year another 200 thousand people break up the household they are running with their partner.

7.2 Civil status of single parents

The growth in the number of break-ups among unmarried cohabiting couples and in the number of cohabiting couples with children means that there are likely to be more single parent families with an unmarried mother as a result of the break-up of unmarried parent couples. The just over 400 thousand single person households show a great variety in civil status categories. Around five in ten single people are legally divorced, nearly one in ten is still married and two in ten are widowed. Two in ten single people have never married. Part of this is a group of former unmarried cohabiters.

Among Surinam and Antillian single person household there’s a relatively large number of unmarried mothers: nearly two in three Antillian mothers never married. Characteristic for Surinam and Antillian populations is the Caribian pattern of relationship and family formation. Mothers form the centre of the family, fathers are often just temporarily present. Informal divorce and unmarried motherhood are frequent occurrences. Remarkably, we are starting to see a similar pattern develop among Dutch families, partly as a result of the emancipation process. Economically independent, self-relying women tend to get married less quickly, and will break off a relationship more easily. Obviously this development will also contribute to the growth of the number of informal step-families. A present single parent situation doesn’t mean the person won’t at some point re-enter into another relationship, possible with someone other than the father of the child.

As of yet, few of these developments have been properly quantified. As far as the chances of becoming an unmarried single parent or unmarried cohabiting step-parents go, there is undoubtedly an increase. The remarkably large number of married single parents (nearly one in ten of all single parents) might be a temporary thing, which ends once the divorce has been formalised. But if might also have to do with the different lifestyle among immigrant communities. Especially Turkish and Moroccan single parents tend to remain married; one in three Turkish single mothers remains married. It is possible that the husband lives abroad, either because he is yet to arrive in the country, or because he has returned there. But it is also possible that in a number of cases, the single parents status is the result of being deserted or cast out of the family house by the husband. 

7.3 Children of divorced couples

In just over half of all divorces taking place annually there will be under-aged children involved. Annually, this involves around 35 thousand under-aged children.  Around one in four children won’t have any form of contact with the father in the years following the divorce. Another one in four has very limited contact with the father. 14 percent of children have limited or no contact with the mother. If, based on these data, we assume that in ten years 350 thousand under-aged children have been involved in a divorce, that means that of a ten-year generation around 175 thousand have no or only a limited contact with the father, and another 50 thousand no or only a limited contact with the mother. Not included in these figures are the children of former unmarried cohabiting parents. It seems obvious that with the increase in the number of unmarried cohabiting couples, the number of divorces within this category involving under-aged children will also increase. These situations are usually unsupervised and beyond formal legal control.

A related phenomenon is that part of the broken families of unmarried parents will merge into new families of unmarried stepparents. This creates informal stepfamilies which are invisible to the administrative authorities. Sometimes there’ll be half-brothers and half-sisters born into such families, making the mix of informal family categories even more complicated. Sometimes there’s a mix inside one household of formal family ties and informal relationships. The term ‘pacthwork family’ refers to a variety of these and other combined arrangements.

Increasingly, the informal repartnering of the parents will lead to situations in both the private and the public sphere where people will feel the urge make formal arrangements. The child of a divorced father, for example, may not have a good relationship with his biological father, but he will be confronted by a new boyfriend in his mother’s household taking on an informal father role. If no arrangements have been made, what happens if important decisions have to be taken? Who will act as the father? This type of situation is likely to arise more often, and politicians will be required to take a position on them at some point in the future. The information about the number of informal families is still rather inaccurate, but the desire for such information will only increase.

8. Greater chance of getting a new partner than of marrying again

Along with the increased chance of a break-up of the relationship and the increased chance of growing old as a never married person or a single parent, the search for a new partner is now also increasingly taking place later in life. Sometimes people will meet a partner in a different social context, for instance through work. But it is also possible that partner selection through mediation will become increasingly popular. The growth of the professional relationships mediation market is a manifestation of this trend. Mediation can help to save time. It fits in a culture of flash divorces that people want to save time finding a new partner. From that perspective, it seems obvious that a current family situation says little about people’s family history. That was also what was gathered during a survey conducted in 1998. An overwhelming majority (82 percent) of all women aged 40 to 53 was living with a partner, but not all these women had also been with this partner during their entire family life. It was also not the case that the remaining 18 percent had been without a partner their entire lives. Behind this snapshot view of Dutch relationships lay a wide range of difference family histories. Of the 80-odd percent of women who were in a relationship at the time of the survey, 70 percent were either married or cohabiting with their first partner. The other 10 percent had had one or more partners in the past.  Even the 18 percent currently not with partner had complex relationship histories. Of them, 10 percent had been previously involved in a relationship. Another 4 percent had been involved in more than one relationship. Only 3 percent had always been without a partner.

In a survey of the rate of repartnering, Van Huis en Visser (2001) produced an estimate of the number of people who got separated or dfivorced between 1994 and 2001 and who subsequently entered into a new cohabiting relationship. With the use of that statistic, they then tried to sketch the dynamic of the process of repartnering. Nearly one in three ex-married people turn out to be involved in a new cohabiting relationship within a year of getting separated: men more often than women, and young people more often than older people. Six years after the divorce, three quarters of all formerly married men have entered into a new cohabiting relationship.  For women, this is ten percentage points lower. In other words, living alone or single parenthood after leaving a relationship is usually a temporary state of affairs, a transition stage en route to a new partnership.

The rate at which a divorced person enters into a new cohabiting relationship with a new partner is not influenced by the formalisation (or lack thereof) of the relationship. Within a year of getting divorced, not more than one percent of all divorcees turns out to have got remarried. But within that same year, nearly one in ten of all formerly married people will have entered into an unmarried cohabiting relationship. Unmarried cohabiting within a year of divorce happens ten times as often as remarrying.

It may be that the low remarriage rate is a product of the fact that the divorce was only pronounced recently, and that people don’t yet feel ready to remarry. But it may also be that people simply don’t want to get married again at all. As time goes on, the number of people that shares a household with a new partner will increase, as will the percentage that will remarry. In section 4, we already discussed the fact that of divorced men 54 percentage will remarry at some point in their lives, whereas for women this figure is 44 percent. In

 section 5, we mentioned that of people aged 40 and over who are in an unmarried cohabiting relationship, only a small minority want to get married.  These facts show that individual life cycles can show various combinations of formal and informal relationships.

9. People living apart together  (lat-relationships)

A special type of informal relationship is the lat-relationship. This phenomenon may be seen as the most radical manifestation of the individualisation and informalisation of relationships. An a lat-relationship, single people or single parents try to maintain an existing formal situation while simultaneously entering into a relationship – without formalising this relationship, or even moving in together.  According to estimates by Loozen and Steenhof (2004), among 30 to 60 year olds, there are 125 thousand single people (either with or without children) who have entered into a lat-relationship with a partner.  Among older people this type of relationship is more popular: more than 4 out of 10 people over forty and nearly 7 out of 10 people over fifty with a lat-partner don’t want to be living with that partner at any point in the future. Almost half of all people currently living alone who want to continue living alone in the future list preserving their freedom as their main reason for wanting to do so. In that sense, lat-relationships are part of the general trend that is the moving cause of the process of informalisation of relationships. It is the most radical type of informality within a typology that stretches from marriage to a boyfriend or girlfriend outside the house. More than 1 in 10 people who want to enter into a lat-relationship are influenced in their decision-making by the fact that they have children from a previous relationship. Another 10 percent list bad experiences as an important reason. Nearly 75 percent of those entering into a lat-relationship have been involved in previous relationships. An analysis by Giersveld also shows that among older people, experience of a divorce can influence the likelihood of a person wanting to enter into a lat-relationship.


10. The Future

The main social trends that have helped to shape the process of informalisation of family life and relationships, have not yet fully worked their way through society yet. The generation of women currently in their twenties will be more emancipated than the generation of their mothers. In academic matters, this generation for the first time matches the performance of men. Their economic independence will be based on that academic performance. By the time this generation of women is entering the phase of family life commitments, they will be able to continue re-evaluate the emotional importance of their relationships. Apart from this, the labour market participation rate of women is likely to increase in the next few decades. This will facilitate the spread of what Felling calls the bourgeois-economic value pattern (2000). Involvement in the labour market, after all, demands a focus on flexibility, detachment, rationality and the ‘here and now’. Another contribution to this process is made by the process of ever increasing secularisation, though this is mainly among the native Dutch population.

In its long-term prognosis of 2002, CBS used these social trends to make a number of predictions about demographic trends. Emancipation, individualisation and secularisation will among other things increase the fragility of relationships, but will also help to strengthen the process of informalisation of relationships, parenthood and divorce. As a result, the composition of the population based on civil status categories will change dramatically. Until the middle of the 21st century, the number of unmarried people will grow more than any other category. Although the population as a whole will grow by 1 million, the number of unmarried people is likely to grow by as much as 3 million. Instead of more than 7 million unmarried people in 2003, there will be nearly 10 million in 2050. An important part of the adult unmarried population will live alone, but many will live with a partner in a cohabiting relationship. The number of married people will decrease from 7 million in 2003 to around 6 million in 2050. The number of divorcees will rise only slightly to just over 1 million. This is not because relationships will become less fragile, but because a growing part of future ex-es will have been in unmarried cohabiting relationships and therefore never have married.  Both the unmarried ex-es as the divorced will search for new partners. Unmarried cohabiting will be an option for many of them. As a result, the share of unmarried cohabiting couples will increase significantly. By 2050, 1 in 3 couples will be unmarried, against 17 percent in 2003. Apart from that, most married couples will have spent some time before their marriage cohabiting. It is to be expected that the increasing shift from married couples to unmarried couples will also lead to a growth in the number of informal families. This in turn will lead to an increase in the number of informal divorces involving children. Not just the number of unmarried parent couples will increase, but the number of unmarried single parents will also increase significantly. The CBS prognosis of 2003 shows that the number of households will grow by 18 percent; but the number of single parent households will grow by 39 percent (from 420 thousand in 22003 to 587 thousand in 2050), and among these the number of unmarried single parents by a stunning 119 percent (from 90 thousand to 197 thousand). The increasing fragility of relationships will also lead to more new relationships. Current data show that repartnering at a later age increases the chance of an informal relationship. That includes informal stepfamilies. These do no figure as a separate category in the CBS prognosis, however.

Obviously, this sketch of the future is in part based on sketchy information about the present. During an individual’s life cycle, both formal and informal situations may prove temporary, although the consequences of each situation may be more long-lasting. The importance of the informalisation of relationships and family life increases even further when we realise that the chance of being in an informal relationship is even greater than the snapshot surveys tend to show: in 2003 only 17 percent of respondents was cohabiting, but during the course of their lives, almost everyone is likely to cohabite at some stage, even if it’s only once!