Patterns of Relationship Dissolution Among Migrant Populations in Belgium and the Role of Household Composition

Dimitri Mortelmans, University of Antwerp
Layla Van den Berg, University of Antwerp

Throughout Europe, the average household size has decreased during the past decades. Part of this decline is due to changes in household composition. These are characterized by a shift from the extended family household to the nuclear family as the traditional household type. Several studies show that the nuclearization of the family is less prominent among migrant populations. For them, family ties are often of greater importance and the incidence of co-residing with family members and living in multi-generational households is found to be higher. Given that union dissolution rates vary greatly between native and non-native groups as well as between couples with at least one migrant partner, our central research question is whether aspects of family composition raise or lower union dissolution risks differently by ethnic composition of the couple. We expect certain aspects of family composition, such as having children and co-residing with relatives and non-relatives, to work as a promoting factor of union dissolution for Belgian native couples while they works as a protective measure for the (often more vulnerable) migrant couples. We investigate the association between family composition and union dissolution using Belgian data from the Crossroads Bank for Social Security for a sample of marriages and cohabitations formed between 1999 and 2003. The sample is disproportionally stratified by migrant status to include a sufficient number of relationships consisting of at least one partner of migrant background. Using discrete-time event history analysis we look whether different aspects of family composition raise or lower union dissolution risks. Results show that the impact of household composition differs by the ethnic composition of the couples. The negative impact of having (young) children in the household is strongest for non-European migrant couples and living with parents significantly raises union dissolution risks for mixed Turkish and Moroccan couples.

Introduction – Throughout Europe, the average household size has decreased during the past decades. Part of this decline is due to changes in household composition. These are characterized by a shift from the extended family household to the nuclear family as the traditional household type. Several studies show that the nuclearization of the family is less prominent among migrant populations. For them, family ties are often of greater importance and the incidence of co-residing with family members and living in multi-generational households is found to be higher. Given that union dissolution rates vary greatly between native and non-native groups as well as between couples with at least one migrant partner, our central research question is whether aspects of family composition raise or lower union dissolution risks differently by ethnic composition of the couple.

Theoretical framework – This paper starts out from the premise that family composition can either raise or lower union dissolution risks for different reasons. On the one hand, living with relatives (or even non-relatives) could prevent union dissolution due to providing additional emotional and material support and induce pressure on the couple to stay together. On the other hand, having addition household members can be a financial burden and might increase conflict in the household and/or the relationship. We expect the impact of living with relatives in particular to be moderated by a number of factors that differ between migrant and non-migrant couples. First, research has found that family solidarity is often more important for migrant groups whereas family ties are generally weaker in central European societies. In migrant couples that regard family solidarity as an important aspect of life and value spending time with family, cohabiting with family members might not be positively associated to relationship instability. Second, groups of non-European origin in Belgium are still confronted with lower labour marker opportunities and are more often employed in unstable and low-income jobs. For couples experiencing economic uncertainty, living with relatives may provide an important network of emotional, social and material support. Third, the approval of union dissolution among family and community differs strongly between Western and non-Western societies. Combined with the importance of family ties among migrant couples this means that it can be harder for these couples to gain self-reliance and choose to dissolve their relationhsip. Lastly, we expect the ethnic composition of the couple to play an important role in itself. Given that couples that are more alike have lower union dissolution risks, cultural distance between partners and other coresiding household member can increase conflict and strain on the relationship. Additionally, mixed couples are often characterised by more progressive attitudes compared to homogamous couples.

Data and methods – We investigate the association between family composition and union dissolution using Belgian data from the Crossroads Bank for Social Security for a sample of marriages and cohabitations formed between 1999 and 2003. These marriages and cohabitations are followed up until 2013 to see when and whether they dissolve. The sample is disproportionally stratified by migrant status to include a sufficient number of relationships consisting of at least one partner of non-Belgian origin. The data provide extensive information on relationship status, socio-economic status (employment and income), welfare state dependency and within-household relationships for all household members residing with the couple or ex-partners. Using discrete-time event history analysis we look at the age and number of children and co-residence with parents, siblings and other relatives to see whether they raise or lower union dissolution risks. The analysis is differentiated by ethnic composition of the couple. We take into account couples with partners of Belgian, Southern European, Moroccan and Turkish origin and discern whether these are co-ethnic or mixed relationships. We control for relationship duration, age at union formation, age difference between partners, employment, household income and premarital cohabitation.

Results – Results show that the impact of household composition differs by the ethnic composition of the couples. Having children lowers divorce risks for all couples and the negative association is most pronounced when young children are present. The negative impact of having any children in the household is strongest for couples consisting of at least one Moroccan or Turkish partner. Looking at the impact of living with relatives, results show that living with parents significantly raises union dissolution risks for mixed couples with a Turkish or Moroccan partner. A possible explanation is the larger cultural differences between partners and parents in law, which can increase conflict in the household and strain on the relationship. This paper contributes to the existing literature by looking into underlying mechanisms of union dissolution among migrant and non-migrant couples. Results show that it is important to not only account for within-couple processes but also include within-household dynamics when studying union dissolution among migrant and non-migrant couples.

Presented in Session 1086: International Migration and Migrant Populations