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Common Law Relationships Rise Among Middle-Aged Canadians


June 21, 2018

OTTAWA, ON – Canadians aged 40 to 54 are increasingly opting for less formal common law relationships instead of marriage. That’s a key finding in the new report Cohabitation Among Middle-Aged Canadians by Peter Jon Mitchell, senior researcher at think tank Cardus. The report cites the latest Canadian census data to show that just over 14 percent of middle-aged Canadians lived in cohabiting households in 2016 – almost doubling the 7.6 percent figure of 1996. And the report shows that the proportion of married middle-aged Canadians declined from 69 percent to 58 percent in the same period. 

But these figures raise an important question: How could the trend away from marriage affect other aspects of the lives of middle-aged Canadians? 

Cohabitation Among Middle-Aged Canadians suggests the trend toward common law relationships could have several effects:

Increased domestic instability – Previous research has indicated that common law relationships break up more easily, and are therefore less stable than marriages. This could lead to increased social isolation among Canadians as they approach retirement age.

Negative health outcomes – Extensive research, including the 2016 report Marriage is Good for Your Health, has shown that happy marriages have been linked to improved cancer survival rates, reduced chances of heart, improved mental health, healthier lifestyles and habits, and better responses to psychological stress. The research has not shown the same benefits from cohabitation.

Caregiving complications – As middle-aged Canadians move into their senior years, caregiving becomes more important. However, the research suggests cohabiting couples provide less care to each other than married spouses do. The less formal nature of common law relationships can also make the care of an unmarried partner’s aging parents or other relatives problematic.

Financial complications – Cohabiting couples are less likely than married couples to pool financial resources. This could complicate long-term financial planning. If children are involved, it could also create difficulties in future wealth transfers as common law couples age.

“While marriage and cohabitation appear to be similar, they are distinct family structures with unique patterns,” says Mitchell. “The social science suggests that healthy marriages offer distinct benefits that middle-aged Canadians are increasingly not receiving, presenting them with significant challenges down the road.”

Cohabitation Among Middle-Aged Canadians is available for download as a PDF.


Daniel Proussalidis
Cardus – Director of Communications