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Frequency of Disagreements, Satisfaction in Couples, and Separations

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A Longitudinal Approach to Family Trajectories in France

Part of the book series: INED Population Studies ((INPS,volume 7))


This chapter looks at how persons in cohabiting unions perceive their relationship and the probability that they will separate over the following 6 years. People living with a partner are generally satisfied with their union. Men expressed disagreement less often than women and had less frequently thought about separating in the 12 months preceding the survey.

Men who had thought about separation were more likely to have separated than those who had not. Women, for their part, more frequently separated if they reported being dissatisfied with the relationship, while for men, degree of satisfaction and risk of separation were not related.

Finally, in France, separation appeared to be less closely linked to social background than in the past. Moreover, being married or having children did not have a clearly positive effect on union stability.

This research was financed in part by a grant from the European Research Council (no. 284238, EURREP) under the European FP7 programme.

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  1. 1.

    11% of initial unions formed by women in 1965–1979 were dissolved within ten years, compared with 32% of those formed in 1990–1999 (Source: ERFI, union survival table; does not include unions dissolved due to the death of a partner; women aged 25–79 at the time of the survey). Using another source (the INED-INSEE survey on family situations and employment, 1994) for women aged 20–49 at the time of the survey, Toulemon (1997) shows that around 11% of the unions formed in 1968–1972 dissolved within ten years (including deaths) compared with 33% for those formed in 1988–1992.

  2. 2.

    The occupational characteristics of the ex-partners are generally not reported in retrospective surveys.

  3. 3.

    For the sake of simplicity, here we selected occurences of the events at the two extremes, “Seldom” or “Never”, and “Frequently”. There are numerous intermediate cases, and for example, people saying they had disagreements on some of the subjects “Sometimes” and other subjects “Seldom” or “Never” belong to an intermediate group.

  4. 4.

    These figures include the response given by respondents for themselves but not to the follow-up question “And your partner?” The response “Become violent sometimes/frequently/very frequently” concerns around 2% of the reactions, so we group it with “Argue heatedly or shout” in our analyses. The difference between men and women above all reflects the fact that women say they argue heatedly or shout frequently or very frequently, twice as often as men.

  5. 5.

    Not everyone is concerned by these subjects, especially drinking alcohol and having children.

  6. 6.

    The relationships between socio-demographic variables and the other variables introduced in the models grouped here (Table 4.3) are presented in Appendix 4. In short, age is associated negatively with satisfaction, but marriage very positively. Married people have also thought about separation less often. The social composition of the couple and the age difference also appear to be important.

    Table 4.3 Logistic regression modelling the fact of being satisfied with the relationship (vs. not satisfied) and having thought about a separation (vs. not having thought about a separation) (odds ratios)
  7. 7.

    The effects observed here are very large, but most of the coefficients of socio-demographic variables remain significant once these variables have been added.

  8. 8.

    We have also shown that it not useful to compare the risks of separation in first and second unions at an identical age since second unions start much later than the first on average (Beaujouan 2015). A model controlling for age at the start of a union relative to the union order is more appropriate when seeking to compare the probability of separation by union order. It can be used to compare people who began their first union at a rather young age (for a first union) with those having begun their second union at a young age (for a second union) and so on. This type of model has been tested (but not presented here), the results being that for men, the difference by union order decreases to the point of no longer being significant; for women, it is close to 0.

  9. 9.

    The sample size is high and the odds ratios close to 1 and non-significant. But the sample size for civil partnerships is too small to draw any conclusions.

  10. 10.

    The sample size relative to stepchildren living in the house hold is not large enough to draw conclusions.

  11. 11.

    Owing to a different reference level, as well as to the rarity of certain configurations. For example, the “working-class woman with a middle-class partner” configuration is rare.

  12. 12.

    In general these are students and for women, in part, economically inactive individuals. They have generally never worked and the “not applicable” partner is more often the woman than the man.

  13. 13.

    But the sample size is small for men. For women, the odds ratio for shouting and violence is significantly higher than 1 before controlling for other factors (OR = 1.4, significant at 4%), but decreases when other variables on the quality of the relationship are introduced.

  14. 14.

    In the first wave (in 2005), 58 were in civil partnerships.

  15. 15.

    This comparison could be improved by filtering by age groups relative to the union order (comparing the first to have formed an initial union with the first to have formed a second union, and so on).


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4.1.1 Appendix 1: Sample Size in the Models

Table 4.6 Sample size observed for the variables used in the model for Table 4.4

4.1.2 Appendix 2: Quality of Data. Separations and Attrition Test

Separations were frequent in the 6-year period (Fig. 4.1). In the youngest age group (20–24), almost one-third of the men and women in a union in Wave 1 and still present in the Wave 3 had separated. The frequency decreases with age, to just 5–10% at ages 45 and over. Separations are also more numerous among short unions, their frequency decreasing with the length of the current union in the first survey. Laurent Toulemon (1997) has shown that among the cohort of people who entered a union in 1983–1987, nearly 30% had separated after 6 years. Here, of the very recent unions at the time of Wave 1, only one-quarter separated in the following 6 years. Consequently, these results call for validation, and it is highly probable that the separations are under-estimated in GGS 1–3 owing to attrition, which we explore below.

Fig. 4.1
figure 1

People in a union during Wave 1 who separated in the following 6 years a by age and b by length of union (%). Coverage: men and women aged 20–54 and in a union in 2005. Note: very small sample size for men aged 20–24 (22) (Source: ERFI-GGS1–3, INED-INSEE, 2005–2011)

Distributing the people in a couple by length of union gives an idea of the quality of the respondents’ statements and the representativeness of the sample from the first to the third wave, in comparison with the Study of Family History (EHF) of 1999 and the Family and Housing survey (EFL) of 2011 (Fig. 4.2). We show only two age groups, but they neatly sum up the situation. Before age 30, the quality of the data on current unions is only relatively good in the first wave and is not really satisfactory in the third wave. There the sample sizes are low, which also explains the erratic results. It appears that at this age, entries into union between the waves were not adequately recorded or that too many or not enough people in a couple exited the sample between waves (curves to high or too low before period 7). At ages 30–34, the distribution of people in a couple is much closer to that in the Family and Family and Housing surveys, and this is also true for people aged 35 and over (result not presented here). For this age group, the third wave is relatively good for men, but for women there are too many people who have been in a couple for 6–10 years (not enough dissolved unions were reported, or people who were single and had separated exited the sample). For higher ages, long unions are considerably under-estimated at ages 35–59 for both sexes and irregularities appear in the third wave, as was the case for 30–34 year-olds.

Fig. 4.2
figure 2

Distribution of people living in a union by time since union formation in the French GGS Wave 1 (2005), the French GGS Wave 3 (2011), the 1999 Study of Family History (EHF) and the 2011 Family and Housing survey (EFL). Coverage: men and women aged 20–54 and in a union in Wave 1. Note: cross-sectional weights are applied (Sources: ERFI-GGS1–3, INED-INSEE, 2005–2011; Study of Family History, INSEE, 1999; Family and Housing survey, INSEE, 2011)

These results are supplemented by a comparison of the annual separations between waves with those of the Family and Housing survey between 2005 and 2010, in the sub-group of people having been in a couple since the survey year or who were single in 2011 and had separated in the preceding 6 years, assuming that they were in a couple between 2005 and their separation (Table 4.7). The attrition bias is over-estimated in principle because the longitudinal GGS sample does not include enough singles in comparison with the 2011 Family and Housing survey, and these individuals constitute a major share of the denominator in our calculation. The proportion of dissolved unions in this sub-group still appears lower in GGS 1-3 than in the Family and Housing survey. The bias is greater for the 35–39 and 40–44 age groups and is also greater for men. However, many additional verifications will be necessary.

Table 4.7 Relative percentage difference between the proportions of people having separated between 2005 and 2010 in GGS Wave 3 compared with the Family and Housing survey (EFL) for the sub-group described below

4.1.3 Appendix 3: Attrition for the Variables of Interest

Table 4.8 shows that the distribution of explanatory variables is relatively unaffected by attrition (after applying longitudinal weights). The proportions shown in the GGS 1 column, calculated in the 2005 survey on the basis of the entire sample, are very similar to those in the GGS 1–3 column, calculated in the 2005 survey but on the basis of the remaining sample after attrition. The calculations for GGS 1–3 are weighted by the longitudinal weights (weights V1V3), which already correct for a share of attrition.

Table 4.8 Proportion of men and women saying they were in each situation in 2005, using the entire sample (ERFI-GGS 1) and the sample after attrition (ERFI-GGS 1–3)

4.1.4 Appendix 4: Logistic Regressions Modelling (1) Satisfaction with the Relationship and (2) the Fact of Having Thought About a Separation

For both men and women, satisfaction with the relationship appears lower for older individuals (Table 4.9). Overall, women aged under 30 appear to be the most satisfied. Women who are at least 1 year older than their partner are also more satisfied. However, no significant link can be observed between age and length of union in 2005 and number of people having thought about a separation in the 12 months preceding the survey.

Table 4.9 Odds ratio (a) of being satisfied with relationship (vs. dissatisfied), (b) having thought about a separation (vs. not having thought about a separation) (standard error in brackets)

The union status is clearly correlated to satisfaction and future prospects, with married people also being those who report the greatest satisfaction with their couple and having less often thought about a separation, particularly for direct marriages. With marriage becoming increasingly selective, it is possible that the people who feel the best with their partner marry more frequently, which leads to married people being the most satisfied. It is also possible that the sense of security associated with marriage makes the relationship more serene (discussed in Soons et al. 2009).

The only significant coefficients relating to children concern children living outside the household. Women (and men at a 6% level) in this situation say they are more satisfied. But this does not change their prospects for the couple. However, the union order appears to be important here, with men in their second (or higher) union saying that they are less satisfied than those in their first union, and women in that situation having more often thought about separation. Here, though, first and second unions cannot be considered as equivalent at an equivalent age (Beaujouan 2015), as the people having already formed a second union at a young age can be considered as specific, and not directly comparable with people having formed their first union at the same age.Footnote 15

Where one of the partners has not entered their occupational category (“Not applicable”, men in that category are often students and women often economically inactive), men are generally less satisfied while women are both less satisfied and have more often thought about a separation. Separations are more frequently envisioned by men in higher-level occupations or women with a less qualified partner than by homogamous couples in the intermediate category. Men in homogamous working class couples have also more often thought about splitting up, and women in this type of couple are less satisfied than the reference category. However, small sample sizes may explain why some categories are non-significant. Lastly, women who are at least 1 year older than their partner are more satisfied than women with partners of roughly the same age.

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Beaujouan, É. (2017). Frequency of Disagreements, Satisfaction in Couples, and Separations. In: Régnier-Loilier, A. (eds) A Longitudinal Approach to Family Trajectories in France. INED Population Studies, vol 7. Springer, Cham.

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