Research Context

In recent decades, industrialised societies have witnessed fundamental changes in partnership patterns and dynamics. Marriage rates have declined, non-marital cohabitation has become common, divorce and separation levels have significantly increased. Changing family patterns have shaped residential and housing histories of individuals and increased the diversity of family and housing trajectories. Some individuals still marry once and live in a family home for most of their lives, whereas others experience multiple partnership and housing transitions. At the same time, changes within housing markets, such as increasingly constrained access to homeownership, have changed the role that family events play in shaping housing transitions across the life course. Taken together, these new demographic and housing realities have major implications for current and future housing inequalities, patterns of social stratification, and opportunities for spatial mobility.

The aim of the PartnerLife project is to gain insight into the interactions between partner relationships on the one hand, and housing and residential relocations on the other, as they develop through people’s life courses and as they are situated in the social and institutional contexts of Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands. We have completed the following papers investigating the relationship between partnership dynamics and residential and housing changes.


1. Partnership patterns and homeownership: a cross-country comparison of Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom

Michael J. Thomas and Clara H. Mulder

Using survey data for three advanced European welfare-state economies (Germany, Netherlands, and UK), we find a fairly common hierarchy to homeownership according to partnership status. In all three countries, married and cohabiting couples are more likely to be homeowners than single-person households. However, there are also important differences between the countries. For instance, in Germany the importance of marriage as a predictor of homeownership is found to be particularly strong; married couples have by far the highest propensities to be homeowners, even when compared to non-married cohabiters. In the Netherlands and UK, where an emphasis on traditional family and marriage is less pronounced, and where homeownership is generally more popular and accessible, there are smaller differences in the probabilities of married and unmarried couples to be homeowners. Although many Western societies have witnessed a rise in the number of couples where partners live separately, we find no evidence to suggest that ‘living-apart-together’ partners are any more or less likely to own their home than singles.

The full, published version of this paper can be found here.

2. Union dissolution and migration

Thomas J. Cooke, Clara H. Mulder, and Michael J. Thomas

While there is a limited body of research regarding residential mobility and migration following union dissolution, there is a particular dearth of studies that go into detail about the factors that shape long-distance (inter-state) migration following union dissolution. Using data for the United States, drawn from 1975 to 2011, this research identifies the processes that influence inter-state migration in the period immediately following the dissolution of a marriage. The results provide support for a gendered model of family migration and indicate that separated parents are less likely to migrate than ex-partners without children, and suggest that the migration decisions of former partners may remain linked through their children even after the end of their marriage. These results indicate that the migration of separated parents is constrained by the need for parents with joint or shared children to remain in close geographic proximity to each other. Since both the number of children living with separated parents and the number of those parents with joint or shared custody of children are increasing, it is likely that this plays some role in the long-term decline in US migration rates.

The full, published version of this paper can be found here.

3. Geographical distances between separated parents: A longitudinal analysis

Michael J. Thomas, Clara H. Mulder, and Thomas J. Cooke

Using the British Household Panel Survey, we investigate how geographical distances between separated partners (with children) develop over time. We find that through links to children, separated parents maintain geographical proximity in the years following partnership dissolution. Additionally, the spatial constraints associated with maintained proximity are linked to educational attainment, repartnering and the location of social networks, and vary in strength by gender. Separated fathers appear to be more able/willing to move away for new partnership formation and occupational reasons. Last, the distances associated with the initial moves after separation are strong predictors of the subsequent distances in the years that follow – if the distance was relatively long or short in the first year, it is likely to remain that way for the subsequent post-separation period.

The full, published version of this paper can be found here.

4. Linked lives and constrained spatial mobility: The case of moves related to separation among families with children

Michael J. Thomas, Clara H. Mulder, and Thomas J. Cooke

Separation and the rise of single-person and lone-parent households is often highlighted as one of the clearest articulations of instability, individualisation and weakening of the family. However, we use the compelling case of moves related to separation among families in Britain to demonstrate how: 1) links between related individuals can simultaneously trigger, shape and constrain (im)mobility; 2) linked lives can intersect in important ways with social, institutional and geographical structures; and 3) linked post-separation (im)mobility outcomes often contradict individually-stated pre-separation desires. Controlling for a range of individual, family and area characteristics, we find that fathers are more likely to leave the family home upon separation than mothers, while mothers are less likely to break with post-separation familial proximity than fathers. Structural factors, including housing-market geographies and population density, further shape these (im)mobility patterns. We conclude that a wider appreciation of the rise of non-traditional households, their complex linked lives and associated constraints is necessary for more realistic explanations of modern (im)mobility patterns and processes.

The full, published version of this paper can be found here.

 5. Separation and housing transitions in England and Wales

Júlia Mikolai and Hill Kulu

There is a large literature investigating short- and long-distance moves of families, but residential and housing changes of separated individuals have been little examined. This study investigates the effect of divorce and separation on individuals’ residential and housing trajectories. Using rich data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) we analyze the likelihood of moving of single, married, cohabiting, and separated men and women to different housing types. We distinguish between moves due to separation and moves of separated people. Our analysis shows that many individuals move due to separation, as expected, but the likelihood of moving is also relatively high among separated individuals. We find that separation has a long-term effect on individuals’ residential careers. Further, separated women are most likely to move to terraced houses, whereas separated men are equally likely to move to flats and terraced houses, suggesting that family structure shapes moving patterns of separated individuals.

6. Short- and long-term effects of separation on housing tenure in England and Wales

Júlia Mikolai and Hill Kulu

This study builds on our previous research and focuses on the effect of divorce and separation on changes in individuals’ housing tenure in England and Wales. The study analyses the likelihood of moving of never partnered, married, cohabiting, and separated men and women to different housing tenure types: homeownership, social renting, and private renting. We find that separated individuals are more likely to experience a tenure change than those who are never partnered or are in a relationship. Separated individuals are most likely to move to privately rented dwellings; however, women are also likely to move to social renting, especially low educated women with children, whereas men are likely to move to homeownership. This pattern persists when we distinguish between moves due to separation and moves of separated individuals indicating a long-term effect of separation on housing tenure. The long-term effect is critical for women who cannot afford homeownership, but also for a group of separated men who can neither afford homeownership nor will have access to social housing.

7. Separation and housing trajectories in Britain – Sequence analysis

Júlia Mikolai and Hill Kulu

In this study we extend our previous research by investigating housing trajectories of separated and divorced individuals in Britain. Using housing tenure and the number of moves we distinguish five types of housing trajectories among separated individuals: persistent homeowners, mover homeowners, persistent social renters, mover social renters, and mover private renters. Our preliminary analysis shows that overall, men are more likely to move out of the joint home after separation than women. They are more likely to move to homeownership and private renting, whereas women are more likely to stay in social housing and to move to social housing. There is also an expected educational gradient: Individuals with secondary and tertiary levels of education are more likely to move to private renting and homeownership, whereas people with lower educational levels have a high propensity to stay in or to move to social housing.

8. Separation and residential instability: A cross-country comparison

Hill Kulu, Júlia Mikolai, Michael J. Thomas, Sergi Vidal, Christine Schnor, Didier Willaert, Fieke H. L. Visser, and Clara H. Mulder

 This study investigates the magnitude and persistence of post-separation residential instability (increased mobility) in five countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK) with similar levels of economic development, but different welfare provisions and housing markets. While there are quite a few studies examining residential changes related to separation in selected individual countries, few have compared patterns across countries. Using longitudinal data, we study the likelihood of moving among separated men and women compared to cohabiting and married individuals. We use time since separation to distinguish between moves due to separation and moves of separated individuals. Our analysis shows that separated men and women are significantly more likely to move than cohabiting and married individuals. The risk of a residential change is the highest shortly after separation and it decreases with duration since separation, as expected. However, the magnitude of this decline varies by housing context. In the most constrained and least flexible housing contexts (i.e. Belgium) mobility rates remain high even a year after separation, whereas in the least constrained and most flexible housing contexts (i.e. the Netherlands) post-separation residential instability appears brief, with mobility rates declining rapidly.

9. Moving in or breaking up? The role of distance in the outcomes of living apart together relationships

Sandra Krapf

Most relationships start with a “living apart together”–phase during which the partners live in two separate households. Over time, a couple might decide to move in together, to separate, or to remain together while maintaining their non-residential status. This study investigates under which circumstances partners will move in together or separate. We consider the length of time partners have to travel to see each other to be a key determinant of relationship development. With a focus on couples aged 20 to 40 years old, we distinguish between short-distance relationships (partners have to travel less than one hour) and long-distance relationships (partners have to travel one hour or more). We find that couples in long-distance relationships are more likely to separate than those living in close proximity. Additionally, the probability of moving in together is lower for couples in long-distance relationships than for those in short-distance relationships. We conclude that distance seems to be particularly relevant for the relationship development of couples living in two separate households.

10. Housing conditions and the dissolution of co-residential partnerships in Germany

Sandra Krapf and Michael Wagner

Partnership dissolution is a widespread phenomenon in advanced societies and it can have negative consequences for former partners and for their children. Therefore, it is important to understand whether the risk to separate is unequally distributed across different socioeconomic groups. In this study, we focus on an important dimension of the socioeconomic situation: a couple’s housing conditions. We argue that a low housing standard leads to increased stress levels. Thus, couples with housing problems are more likely to separate than couples with a higher housing standard. Our analyses showed that housing affordability, measured by the couple’s remaining monthly income per person after housing costs were deducted, was negatively related to union dissolution for couples with low household income. In other words, the lower the remaining income, the more likely that couples separate. This result underscores the relevance of housing affordability for union dissolution over and above the couple’s overall income situation. Another aspect of housing problems is household crowding, i.e. households with more than one person per room on average. Contrary to our expectations, our results indicate that crowding is not an important factor for union dissolution.

11. Commitment in Living-Apart-Together relationships

Roselinde van der Wiel, Clara H. Mulder, and Ajay Bailey

In the past decades, new relationship types have emerged that suggest that commitment may be less important in modern, individualized societies. ‘Living apart together’ (LAT) is one such relationship type. LAT refers to longer-term, monogamous couples, who live in separate households. This study asked the question: How do people in LAT relationships experience commitment to their partner, with respect to emotional attachment and wanting to maintain the relationship, and why so? To answer this question, 22 in-depth interviews were conducted with individuals in LAT relationships in the Netherlands. The results show that motivations to live apart mostly revolve around personal independence, career development, and self-protection: “living apart for the self”. Most participants in this study were emotionally highly attached to their partner, which could largely be attributed to their feelings of being satisfied with and having emotionally invested in their relationship. However, participants’ stance on the future was relatively open; they generally did not value the notion of a life-long partnership very highly. Older participants had been taught a different reality by their relationship experience, often to their own regret, and younger participants were only interested in a life-long partnership on the condition that the partnership remained satisfying for life. The younger study participants had idealistic views on relationships, and cohabitation and children were clearly part of their vision for the future, even though marriage mostly was not. Those who were older, and more experienced in life and love, tended to have a less idealistic and more practical conception of relationships. They lived apart to avoid perceived downsides of married life, to enjoy their regained freedom and independence, and/or to limit the consequences of a potential separation, which, they had learned, can be a realistic scenario. For that reason, they did not want to marry again, and they saw LAT as an arrangement for the unknown or very long term.

A longer version of this research summary can be found in Demotrends.