Case study

How does a couple’s separation affect income, employment and well-being?

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Author: Mike Brewer, University of Essex, Alita Nandi, Institute for Social and Economic Research

Date: 2 March 2015

Type of case study: Research

About the research

Is Separation driving decline in living standards?

The UK has one of the highest numbers of separated families in the developed world with, according to OECD figures from 2014, just 69 per cent of children in the UK were living with both parents (this compares with an OECD average of 84 per cent). Government policy has therefore emphasised the need to prevent family breakdown to prevent children from growing up in poverty. A study by Professor Mike Brewer and Dr Alita Nandi at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has shed light on the effects of separation on family members’ life satisfaction, general health and income. This research found that the living standards of children and their mothers fall by more on average, after separation, than they do for fathers.

The study explored how economic and subjective measures of the well-being of couples and their children in Great Britain changed in the years following separation, by analysing the following key variables of the survey: marital status, age, sex, region, education, employment status, own children, net equalised household income, house ownership, rent and mortgage information, parents identification, General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), and overall life satisfaction. The first year the martial status changed from being married or cohabiting to being separated was identified as the first year of separation. Changes in income, material deprivation, GHQ, life satisfaction were measured starting two years prior to separation and then at each year after separation. Depending on the specific research question logistic estimation, ordinary least squares regression, kernel densities and other graphical representation were used.

Research findings

This research sought to provide a complete picture of the changes in both the economic and non-economic outcomes among couples in Great Britain following their separation – it examined changes in income, measure of mental distress, and overall life satisfaction of couples after their separation for different types of couples, such as couples with children, without children, with non-dependent children. Additionally, it asked whether the outcomes varied by gender and family type prior to separation; for example, whether women with children suffered a greater income loss than men with children or couples without children. The findings showed that not only do living standards of children and their mothers fall by more, on average, after separation, than they do for fathers, but, correspondingly, around 15 per cent of mothers and 19 per cent of children fall into relative poverty upon separation.

The findings also showed that for all groups, mental health and life satisfaction decline around the time of separation, but both are quick to return to pre-split levels. These trends seem unrelated to what happens to income after separation.

About the data

This research draws on data from all the 18 waves, from 1991 to 2008, of the British Household Panel Survey. In particular, the following datasets were analysed: the British Household Panel Survey, 1991-2009, the British Household Panel Survey Derived Current and Annual Net Household Income Variables, Waves 1-18, 1991-2009 and the British Household Panel Survey Consolidated Marital, Cohabitation and Fertility Histories, 1991-2009.

The British Household Panel Survey has been used for the research both because it is a long running longitudinal study and because it collects information on almost all aspects of a person’s lives ranging from basic socio demographic characteristics, marital and fertility outcomes, education, labour market outcomes and income receipts to attitudes, values, mental and physical health and life satisfaction.

Publications and outputs

To read the report in full:

Brewer, M. and Nandi, A. (2014) Partnership dissolution: how does it affect income, employment and well-being?, ISER Working Paper Series 2014-30. Retrieved 2 December 2014 from

Lopatin, M. (24 November 2014) ‘Divorce & Separation: Men at risk of depression’, Society Central. Retrieved 2 December 2014 from

Media coverage

The research has received media coverage among a number of sources. It was referred to in an article published by Society Central - see Marc Lopatin (24 November 2014) ‘Divorce & Separation: Men at risk of depression’, Society Central. Retrieved 2 December 2014 from An article 'One in five mothers find families fall into poverty after relationship breakdown', published by the Nuffield Foundation, dated 29 September September 2014, also focused on the findings:

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