Living Arrangements of Young Adults after a First Union Dissolution: Evidence from Belgium

Benjamin Marteau, Institut national d’études démographiques (INED)

Conjugal courses and pathways to adulthood are changing in Europe, characterized by an increasing heterogeneity among young adults. The decline of marriage in favour of unmarried unions and registered partnerships, uncertainty on the labour market or an increase in union dissolutions have led to this heterogeneity of pathways. Living in a co-resident couple is now associated with higher risks of breaking up than before. Yet, the outcome of a union dissolution on residential trajectories remains poorly documented, especially in the demographically dense period of transition to adulthood. For at least one partner, this dissolution leads to a move and for both partners, to a new household composition. Young adults may choose or be constrained to relocate in a particular household structure after this break-up.

Using the Belgian National Register, this article provides a gendered analysis of young adults born between 1978 and 1982 who are forming and ending a union before age 30. Every year, the Register records the conjugal and residential situation of legally residing inhabitants in Belgium. By applying a multinomial logistic regression to this discrete-time data, we estimate competing risks of ending a first cohabiting couple to choose specific living arrangements: returning to the parental home, living alone, repartnering or living in another shared dwelling. Results show that men are more likely to return in the parental home after a dissolution or in shared dwelling. Women are more likely to repartner the year after the break-up. The most common path is to live alone, with higher odds for individuals residing in the capital, without high school diploma and previously in an unmarried relationship.

Events commonly used to characterize the transition to adulthood in Europe became in the recent years more complex and diverse (Billari & Liefbroer, 2010; Stone, Berrington & Falkingham, 2011). The growing number of union dissolutions would suggest for young adults (says 16–30) that the formation of a first co-resident couple could be lived differently, where it’s not as important as before to live in a stable union and to share a project of childbirth or marriage. In some countries like France, recent cohorts of young adults form a first co-resident couple sooner than their elders, and (for all ages) the risks of dissolution seem to be maximal during the first two years of cohabitation, reducing the likelihood of having a child during this union (Rault & Régnier-Loilier, 2015).

Especially during their early twenties, young adults are at a crossroad between their professional and familial courses, and lots of disruptions can happen at these ages. In line with a higher access to education, sharing a dwelling with a partner, without long-term commitment and for practical reasons (studies, expensive housing…), could be used by young people who don’t have a (stable) job or by those who haven’t finished their studies yet (Sassler, 2004). The formation of a cohabiting union is a frequently studied event in the transition to adulthood, but little attention was paid if this couple separates. A break-up involves residential moves for at least one of the ex-partners, these dynamics being different when there are no children in the couple. For the ex-partner who moves, the relocation can be particularly uncertain and transitory in time—conducting to a decrease in housing quality (Cooke, Mulder & Thomas, 2016; Mulder & Wagner, 2010).

Two main objectives will lead this article: first, to analyze the prevalence, by sex, of young adults forming a co-resident union and the survival curve of these couples before the age of 30. Second, with a logistic regression applied to discrete-time data structure, to calculate the dissolution risks of these couples with an emphasis on the household situation the year after the break-up.

To achieve our objectives, I will use the Belgian National Population Register, which covers all the individuals who are legally residing in Belgium, and enables to follow these people and the evolution of their household composition, their moves and basic sociodemographic information since 1991. The data are separated in two main files: a first one with population stock on the 1st of January of each year, a second one with population flows and the timing of their moves. With the ID of the potential partner and the evolution of the household situation, it’s possible to follow conjugal and residential trajectories in time and, if a cohabiting union exists, to define the risks of dissolution.

I choose to focus on 5 cohorts of men and women born from 1978 to 1982, who appear in the Register at age 16 and age 30. Then, with the population stock data, I trace their household situation every year from 16 to 30 and look at the possible presence of an opposite-sex partner in the household. If there’s a change of situation between two years (a formation or a dissolution of a couple), the population flows data is used to determine which partner moves in or moves out, including the exact month of the transition.

After calculating summary indicators on the conjugal situation of young adults, I use a logistic regression applied to discrete-time data to define the risks of a first union dissolution combined with residential outcomes. The dependent variable in the models is the log odds of ending a first union to be in a certain household composition after the dissolution. This means there are competing risks to follow a specific route, so I distinguish three of them: the risk of ending a union to live alone (or being an adult in a single-parent family), to return to the parental home or the risk of knowing any other situation (complex or collective household, repartnering…). Several explanatory variables will be included in our models: which partner leaves the ex-conjugal dwelling, union duration, sex, age, urban area…


Billari, F. C., & Liefbroer, A. C. (2010). Towards a new pattern of transition to adulthood? Advances in Life Course Research, 15(2–3), 59-75.

Cooke, T. J., Mulder, C., & Thomas, M. (2016). Union dissolution and migration. Demographic Research, 34(26), 741-760.

Mulder, C. H., & Wagner, M. (2010). Union Dissolution and Mobility: Who Moves From the Family Home After Separation?, 1263.

Rault, W., & Régnier-Loilier, A. (2015). First cohabiting relationships: recent trends in France. Population & Sociétés(521).

Sassler, S. (2004). The process of entering into cohabiting unions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(2), 491-505.

Stone, J., Berrington, A., & Falkingham, J. (2011). The changing determinants of UK young adults'' living arrangements. Demographic Research, 25, 629-666.

Presented in Session 1235: Posters