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The Rise of Common-law Coupling in Canada March 8, 2007

Posted by Ninja Clement in Sociology.

Common-law coupling has been on the rise in Canada for decades now. Census data from 1981, 1991 and 2001 shows the following trends in family types:

Family Type 1981 1991 2001
Married with children at home 55.0% 48.1% 41.5%
Married without children at home 28.1% 29.2% 29.1%
Lone parent families 11.3% 13.0% 15.7%
Common law with children at home 1.9% 4.0% 6.3%
Common law without children at home 3.7% 5.8% 7.5%

As of 2001, 13.8% of family types in Canada are of the common law variety. This figure only stood at 5.6% in 1981.

The growth of common-law coupling is even more apparent when the data on conjual relationships in general is considered. Between 1995 and 2001, the number of married couples increased by only 3.2%, from 6.2 million to 6.4 million. Over the same period, the number of common-law couples climbed from 1.0 million to 1.2 million, a 20% increase. Nationally, 16.0% of all conjugal relationships as of 2001 are common-law. 

Underlying the national rate, it should be noted, is considerable regional variation. In Québec, more than one in four couples is in a common-law union – as high as the rate in Sweeden (30%) and higher than that in Norway (24.5%), Finland (18.7%) and France (17.5%). Indeed, the proportion in the rest of Canada excluding Québec is only 11.7%.  [Common-law unions are also popular in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut].

Common-law coupling is, not surprisingly, a more popular option among those under the age of 40. As of 2001, more than 42% of men and more than 53% of women aged 20 to 29 can be expected to choose a common-law arrangement as their first union. This drops to 40.5% for men 42.3% for women aged 30 to 39 [the survey presumably covers men and women who have been partnered at least once, through marriage or common-law]. The rate among men and women aged 40 to 49 is only 28.4% and 26.7%, respectively, and is much lower still within older male and female cohorts. 

Again, the pattern in Québec is exceptional. In that province, only 26% of women aged 30 to 39 in 2001 are expected to choose marriage as their first union, compared to 59% of women in the same age range in the other provinces. The remainder, 70% of Québec women aged 30 to 39, can be expected to start their first unions in common-law. This is more than twice the rate in the other provinces, at 34%.

Agreeable attitudes towards common-law coupling are more prevalent among domestic-born and non-religiously observant Canadians. A Statistics Canada survey shows that the odds of living in a common-law arrangement are 1.4 times higher for persons born in the country than for those born elsewhere. Non-religiously observant people (measured by rate of weekly attendance at a religious service) are 5.7 times more likely to be open to common-law living than those who attend religious services weekly.

Bibliography: Statistics Canada, “Profile of Canadian Households: Diversification Continues” 96F0030XIE2001003, 2001 Census of Population (2002), “Changing Conjugal Life in Canada89-576-XIE, General Social Survey – Cycle 15 (2002) and “Would you live common-law?”, Canadian Social Trends, Fall 2003, No. 70 (2003)         

Next up in Sociology – the instability of common-law coupling



1. Cat - September 30, 2009

Wow. Is there any new Stats now that this is 8 years after the last census of 2001? I might calculate that the % of single parent families has risen by at least 2%.

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