How do families fare long term after couples split up?

Longitudinal survey data provides an excellent resource for studying how families cope with and respond to potentially life-changing events, such as when couples split up and families separate. Professor Mike Brewer and Dr Alita Nandi analysed data for the Nuffield Foundation to gain a clearer insight into the fortunes – and wellbeing – of families after the split.

Previous research using the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) had shown that, when couples split up, women and children were more likely to see their incomes fall, on average, than men were. In work funded by the Nuffield Foundation, ISER’s Professor Mike Brewer and Dr Alita Nandi extended that analysis to provide detail of what happens not just to income, but also to work patterns, living arrangements, and the mental health and well-being of separating adults. This broad scope allowed the researchers to paint a rich picture: in reality, partnership status, incomes, employment and mental health or well-being are all changing simultaneously, and there are multiple causal pathways.

The key results, based on all waves of the BHPS from 1991 to 2008, confirmed that children and their mothers see living standards fall by more, on average, after separation than do fathers. As a result, around 15 to 20 percent of children and their mothers experiencing a separation fall into relative poverty. This rise in poverty is even larger, and lasts for longer, if we measure what disposable income remains having deducted housing costs: this could reflect that some women see housing costs rise when they move out of the former family home, or it could just reflect that, even for those who do not move house, housing costs after the separation make up a larger fraction what is almost certainly a lower level of disposable income.

What is perhaps surprising is that the fall in living standards is far more acute (in proportionate terms) for those individuals who, as a couple, had above-median income than it was for those who were living in below-median-income couples. Although there are always a wide range of individual circumstances, on average individuals in low-income couples see little change in living standards around the time of separation, but women and children in high-income couples see large falls. For women from these high-income couples, a typical pattern is that the loss of the man’s earnings is in no way compensated for by alimony and child maintenance, increases in benefits and tax credits, and having one fewer mouth to feed.

An even more striking finding, although one affecting fewer individuals, was the difference in how living standards change upon separation for men and women from couples whose children are now grown up. Women in these families, who are mostly aged over 50 when separating, and tend to have been married, see living standards fall by far more, on average, than their former partners, with 30 percent of them falling into relative poverty upon separation.

The researchers learned more through a careful examination of how different sources of income changed upon separation, and by tracking changes in housing tenure and living arrangements. For example, some individuals (mostly men, and mostly from previously low-income couples) see little change in their household income around separation because they immediately move in with other adults who are not their partners, such as parents, siblings or friends. On the other hand, one reason why separating women whose children are grown-up see such large falls in income around separation is that when these women move out of the family home, they lose not only the earnings of their former partner, but also of their children.

Separation can be a very stressful or distressing experience, and this is evident amongst those individuals in the BHPS. On average, levels of well-being (as measured by a score which captures instances of poor mental health) and life satisfaction decline around the time of separation. Although women report lower levels of well-being than men, on average, men see mental distress rise by more than women around the time of separation, with fathers seeing the largest rise. But well-being and life satisfaction return, relatively quickly, to their pre-split levels, and this pattern seems unrelated to what happens to income after separation: indeed, women from couples with grown-up children see some of the largest falls in income, on average, but also see the greatest improvement in well-being and life satisfaction after separation.

This blog post is based on research published in “Partnership dissolution: how does it affect income, employment and well-being?”
By Mike Brewer and Alita Nandi,ISER Working Paper 2014-30.