More married couples breaking up after birth of their first child

Grainne Cunningham

MARRIED couples are up to 30pc more likely to split up after the birth of their first child than those with no children or more than one, a groundbreaking study on families in Ireland has found.

Striking changes in the patterns of marriage and parenting, the increase in same-sex couples and delayed fertility are some of the trends identified in 'Family Figures: Family Dynamics and Family Types in Ireland, 1986-2006'.

The researchers, from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and UCD, analysed the changes in Irish households over those two decades, benefiting for the first time from access to the microdata behind the census of population statistics.

The dramatic increase in marital breakdown after the birth of the first child was described by one of the report's authors, Pete Lunn, as "quite surprising".

"Our favoured explanation is that a first child can put strain on the relationship, while having more children is a sign that any strains were overcome," the authors conclude.


The report identified a strong trend towards co-habitation and away from marriage among young adults -- those aged 25 years are twice as likely to be living together as married.

But researchers said it was too early to know whether this trend would result in an absolute drop in the marriage rate, as those now co-habiting may yet get married.

The researchers also found that "delayed fertility has become the norm". Most women are waiting until they are in their 30s to have children and the higher her educational attainment, the longer she is likely to delay motherhood.

Most women now have two to three children but one in six women have no children at 45.

Most childless women are unmarried, suggesting the link between marriage and the desire to have children remains strong.

The report said that the delay in having children may increase the risk that people have fewer children than they ideally would like to have.

Overall, the number of same- sex couples remains small, (0.15pc of 15-59-year-olds) but it is rising rapidly, from 150 in 1996 to 2,090 in 2006.

Most such couples are in their 30s and 40s, have high educational achievement and are concentrated in Dublin.

The study showed that the marital breakdown rate rose rapidly in the 1990s but levelled off in recent years and remains low by international standards.

"There is no evidence that the introduction of divorce in 1997 affected the trend in marital breakdown," the report said. Couples now in their 40s are more likely to split up than older couples.

Marriage breakdown is more common among the lower socioeconomic groups. But those who are better off are more likely to get a divorce, as opposed to simply separating.

There are 10,000 lone parent males, most of whom arrive at that status through marital breakdown.

In 2006, 57pc of lone parents had never married, 35pc had experienced marital breakdown and 8pc were widowed.

The relationship between low educational attainment and the likelihood of becoming a lone mother is strong.

One in four women with lower second-level qualifications are unmarried lone mothers by their mid-20s, compared to just 3pc of graduates.

Social and Family Affairs Minister Mary Hanafin said the report was "a wonderful piece of research" and would greatly inform the preparations for next year's census as well as helping to drive Government policy.