Housing and splitting up

Dr Rory Coulter, Dr Michael Thomas

Research often looks at how splitting up changes households – and affects women in particular – but we know much less about whether our housing is a factor in splitting couples up

Breaking up is never easy, and one of the things that make it difficult is housing: at least one half of the couple needs to find somewhere else to live. This can be particularly tricky in a country with a housing shortage where it is increasingly difficult to find an affordable, secure, high quality and well-located home.

Most research in this area looks at the issue this way round – examining a range of housing related consequences to splitting up such as moving back in with parents, moving from homeownership to renting, or moving to a less desirable dwelling or neighbourhood.

We wanted to look at this issue the other way round: how the housing conditions we live in can affect the stability of our relationships. Using Understanding Society data, we asked:

  • Do differences in security of tenure (e.g. having one’s name on the mortgage/rent agreement) affect the ‘costs’ of separation and the longevity of a relationship?
  • Can the house or flat itself – especially if there is a lack of space – contribute to the stresses and frictions in relationships?
  • How does being behind on rent or mortgage payments affect relationships and the chances of splitting up?

Impact on society

This seems to us an important area of research given the current pressures on housing in the UK. Stagnant or falling incomes combined with high house prices and rents mean fewer people, especially the young, can afford mortgages. Overall we’re seeing greater inequality across the housing system. Falling levels of home ownership, insecurity in the private rental sector and the difficulty of affording a home could have implications for family stability, child development, and many other aspects of society.

What we found

We analysed thousands of couples across Waves 1-7 of Understanding Society, and looked at whether they stayed together throughout that time or separated, publishing our findings in Demographic Research.

We found that homeowners have a much lower risk of separation than social and, to a lesser extent, private tenants. Tenure insecurity in the private rental sector may place more stress on a relationship. However, it is also likely that people in less secure ‘trial’ relationships choose to rent rather than buy together, while access to social housing is also restricted to more vulnerable populations with typically higher separation rates. As such, housing tenure in itself may not be the main factor but an indicator of other processes.

We also found that if all other factors are equal, the relative risk of separation is highest among couples where neither partner is written into the housing contract, which could be because their housing situation is precarious and often transitory.

Gender

The risk of separation is also higher when the woman is the sole owner/renter than when both partners or only the man are written into the housing contract. This fits with the idea that the more economically independent women are, the fewer disincentives they have to end an unhappy relationship.

We already know that gender can affect people’s housing after a split. (For example, if the mother is the primary caregiver to the couple’s children, she is more likely to stay in the same house after a separation, especially if the couple have been living in social housing.) So, this suggests that in future it would be valuable to see research into not just how gender can affect the outcome of a separation, but also how it can affect the decision-making processes which determine which couples split up.

Money

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest factors linked to splitting up is money. Even after controlling for perceived financial difficulties, being behind with one’s rent or mortgage payments was a substantial separation risk for British couples. What we didn’t expect to find, though, was that housing arrears were a particularly potent predictor of separation for married couples. We speculate that this might be because the experience of arrears contrasts more sharply with society’s expectations for economic and housing stability and security within marriage, as compared to cohabitation. 

We’d like to see more research into this to see if it’s a reliable finding, and to look at the potential mechanisms behind it. The centrality of housing to most people’s lives means that any threats to residential security probably create significant stress, harm well-being, generate arguments and thus undermine relationships.

This is troubling, because many British households – especially those that are younger and poorer – currently have large consumer and student debts, and spend a significant proportion of their incomes on housing (particularly rent). It’s not too far-fetched to envisage a scenario where further rent or interest rate hikes combine with reduced public welfare provision and anaemic income growth to push more couples into arrears, making more couples more likely to split.

We don’t want people to stay in relationships if they’re not happy (and certainly not for the sake of the housing system!), but we would like to see more research into this area, so we can all better understand the links between housing and social change.

Authors

Dr Rory Coulter

Rory Coulter is a Lecturer in Quantitative Human Geography at UCL

Dr Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas is a lecturer at the Population Research Centre, University of Groningen