2.87 million people across UK in distressed relationships

Parents of under-16s are more likely to be in distressed relationships

  • 2.87 million people (18% of married or cohabiting couples) are in distressed relationships*
  • This includes over 1.4 million families** at breaking point across the UK
  • Parents of under-16s are more likely to be in distressed relationships (22%)
  • Today, the charity Relate launches its first appeal to help address negative impacts of family breakdown and poor quality relationships

A staggering 2.87 million people across the UK are living in relationships which would be described within clinical practice as distressed, according a new study by Relate, the UK’s leading relationships charity.  This equates to 18% of married or cohabiting couples and 1.4 million UK families. The research also found that parents of under-16s are more likely to be in distressed relationships (22%).

The charity is concerned that these poor quality relationships are having a detrimental impact on people’s physical and mental health with many struggling to access the support they need and reaching breaking point. The figures are released as Relate launches its first national appeal, Breaking Point, calling for donations to help subsidise vital services to support families whose relationships and finances are under intense pressure.

The statistics are taken from Relate’s report, Relationship Distress Monitor, which is published today (Wednesday 25th May) and is based on new analysis of data from the UK household longitudinal study, Understanding Society.   The research, which had a sample size of 20,980, looked at key questions from a validated scale to measure relationship quality.  These included how often couples argued, how frequently they considered separation or divorce, the extent of unhappiness in their relationship and how often they regretted being in their relationship.

The research also found that:

  • 9% of partners report at least occasionally*** considering divorce or separation.
  • 10% of partners report at least occasionally regretting getting married or living together.
  • 49% of partners report at least occasionally quarrelling – and 6.8% report severe levels.
  • Parents of under 16s are more likely to be in distressed relationships – 22%.

A distressed relationship is one with a severe level of relationship problems, which has a clinically significant negative impact on partner’s wellbeing. Relate counsellor, Arabella Russell, said:

“Through my work I see countless couples in distressed relationships.  Often the couples I see are arguing constantly with pressures such as jobs, finances and childcare putting their relationships under real strain. It’s a very painful place to be and the impact it can have on the family is huge.”

Surbiton mother of four, Julia Darbyshire, 47, attended Relate with her husband,  Andy, 47, when their relationship reached breaking point.  Julia said:

“We went to Relate when the pressures of work and childcare started to impact on our relationship. We were arguing a lot and our eldest son was noticing that we were at logger heads. We had hit a real rocky patch but with the support of our counsellor, we were able to turn things around.

“Speaking to somebody objective was really helpful.  Since attending the counselling sessions, things have really improved and we’ve gone on to have another two children together. We now feel we communicate more effectively and have the tools we need to address any issues that come up. I’d urge anyone to donate to Relate- I think it’s so important that everyone can access support for their relationships, not just those who can afford it. Unhappy relationships can have a terrible effect on couples and their children but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Relationship breakdown currently costs the UK economy £48billion a year.  Relate highlights that as well as the economic cost, there is also a profound social and human cost of poor quality relationships. Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive at Relate said:

“It is hugely concerning that 18% of UK married and cohabiting couples are in distressed relationships. Broken and unhealthy relationships can lead to debt, loneliness, health problems, depression, homelessness, criminality and can have a profound effect on children’s life chances.

“Parents of young children are more likely to be in distressed relationships, which is particularly worrying. Families can’t go on like this. We need to make sure that Relate’s services are available to everyone, not just those who can afford them, but we can’t do so unless we get donations to subsidise the cost.  That is why we are launching our Breaking Point appeal today, calling on people to donate to us to help families find the answer that’s right for them, as with Relate’s support a breaking point can become a turning point.”

* Levels of relationship distress were estimated by analysing data from the Understanding Society survey. The most recent data were released November 2015, and the data were analysed over March-April 2016. The sample of people in relationships (married or cohabiting) was 20,980. Relationships were characterised as ‘distressed’ or ‘non-distressed’ by calculating respondents’ answers to questions from a scientifically validated scale to measure relationship quality and the severity of relationship problems. For further information on the methodology, please see the research report.

** We follow the ONS definition of ‘families’ in the Families and Households statistical bulletins: ‘A family is a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent with at least one child.’

*** ‘At least occasionally’ includes those who answered ‘occasionally’, ‘more often than not’, ‘most of the time’ and ‘all of the time’.