Couples rejecting marriage for de facto

By Julian Swallow 27 September 2010
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Couples are increasingly choosing de-facto relationships over marriage, getting wed later and having fewer kids.

INCREASING NUMBERS OF AUSTRALIAN couples are saying “I don’t,” according to researchers from the University of Queensland. The legal union is instead being eschewed in favour of de-facto partnerships.

About 15 per cent of all relationships are now de-facto, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. At the same time, there has been an overall decline in the popularity of marriage and changing expectations of intimate relationships.

The trend is mirrored by an increase in divorces and separations, as well as an increase in the average the age at which people marry and a decrease in the number of children they have. Sociology Professor Janeen Baxter, who led the study, says this has profound implications.

Less privileged status

“The changes we have witnessed suggest that while marriage is still an important social institution, it no longer enjoys the privileged status it once did as the only way for families and societies to organise intimate relationships and childrearing,” Janeen says. “The changes to marriage reflect deep changes in the values and organisation of modern societies.”

These changes include growing university enrolments, the increasing participation of women in the workplace, pressures associated with rises in the cost of living, and increasing lifestyle choices.

“Previous generations just accepted they would get married. Now they postpone it until they find the right person or have had a career, and are prepared to get divorced if they’re not happy. They’re looking for more quality,” Janeen told Australian Geographic.

Sociologist Dr Lyn Craig from the University of New South Wales agrees, and believes the “institutional force of marriage is not what it once was.”  She says today there are fewer social sanctions governing how people live. “People now have the ability to live in a way that makes them happy that didn’t exist before,” says Lyn.

The new traditional family

But while people’s relationship choices are becoming more diverse, some things haven’t changed. “Once they marry, women still do the majority of the housework and childcare. That reality is not too different from the past. But this is difficult to sustain because they’re also working,” says Janeen.

One solution increasingly adopted by Australian women is part-time work, and Janeen says the rate is now the second highest in the developed world behind The Netherlands. “It’s being called the ‘new traditional family’, and allows couples to reconcile the need for paid work with their unpaid responsibilities, such as children.” says Janeen. “It’s being adopted by many households with young children in the absence of policies allowing women to work full-time.”

The University of Queensland study is a five-year project involving surveys measuring household income and labour dynamics. Janeen hopes its findings will lead to the development of more effective policies that encourage a better balance between work and family life.

‘We need policies that allow women to pursue paid work, as well as arrangements to more effectively address who will look after the children,” she says, citing a paid parental leave scheme and affordable childcare as appropriate steps to address this.