Nearly one in six people in unmarried relationships admit they are worried about their partner’s loyalty, according to a major new survey of life for couples.
It found that overwhelmingly couples valued communication, trust and commitment as the vital pillars of a good relationship – but 15 per cent of unmarried couples fear their partner’s commitment to them is less than theirs to their partner.
The level of doubt and mistrust among informal couples is two-and-a-half times the amount of concern about commitment detected among married couples.
The study, carried out for counselling charities including the Relate service, suggests differences between married and cohabiting couples. It suggests that the lack of any public commitment to each other is a key reason why cohabiting relationships break up over three times faster than marriages.
Mistrust among cohabiting couples was detected by a survey of 5,000 people carried out across the country for Relate, Relationships Scotland and Marriage Care by YouGov.
It found that mutual reliance was of central importance to couples. More than two thirds, 67 per cent, said trust was important; 52 per cent pointed to communication, and 37 per cent said commitment.
This compared with just 19 per cent who thought fidelity was the most important factor in a good relationship. Only 13 per cent cited a good sex life, and 12 per cent physical attraction.
But commitment was much more unlikely among cohabiting couples than among married people, it found.
Measuring what it described as ‘commitment asymmetry’ among couples, the study found 15 per cent of those who are part of unmarried couples admitted concern that their partner’s level of commitment was different from theirs.
The 15 per cent figure applied both to live-in and live-apart couples, so fears are likely to be higher among cohabitees, who in other measurements in the survey are shown to have higher levels of mutual stress than live-apart couples.
Among married couples, only six per cent have concerns about their husband or wife’s commitment.
The report said that 19 out of 20 relationship counsellors had over the past year worked with couples for home commitment assymetry was a difficulty.
It added: ‘Unsurprisingly, the importance attributed to commitment was higher for married partners, with 42 per cent choosing this as the most important factor, compared to 29 per cent of cohabiting partners and 27 per cent of partners not living together.’
Commitment was regarded as more important by longer-established couples. The study said 28 per cent of couples who have been together for two years value commitment; after 15 years this goes up to 35 per cent, and after 35 years almost half, 47 per cent, of older couples think commitment is what matters.
Nearly 28 per cent of cohabitees said their relationship was ‘distressed’, compared to just over 25 per cent of married people and just under 20 per cent of those in live-apart couples. Some 26 per cent said money worries were the greatest strain on their relationship, and 20 per cent cited ‘not understanding each other.’
Relate Chief Executive Chris Sherwood dismissed the importance of marrying for a couple. ‘We absolutely celebrate marriage for those who choose it, though we don’t think it’s the only way to have a loving and committed relationship,’ he said.
‘In our experience and as evidenced by a wealth of research, it’s the quality of a relationship that matters through life’s ups and downs rather than its status. Building and maintaining a strong, healthy relationship takes work – regardless of whether a couple is married or not.’
The report said the decision to cohabit is the equivalent of a wedding. ‘For many couples today, moving in together signifies a seriousness, and a significant stage in the relationship – an important and public transition when the couple gains formal recognition as a unit,’ it said.
But it added: ‘However, other research from the US highlights that lack of a clear relationship pathway can sometimes result in some couples “sliding” into living together without necessarily making a conscious decision to undertake a long-term commitment.’
Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation think tank said: ‘This report is right to pick up on the issue of asymmetric commitment, where one partner is more committed than the other.
‘This is one of the better explanations for why married couples are more likely to stay together – because they have had a clear conversation about their future and their commitment is mutual and explicit – and why cohabiting couples are more likely to split up.
‘It is therefore no longer tenable to claim that marriage and cohabitation amount to much the same thing.’