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Legal support is essential to foster social inclusion of same-sex couples

Interview with Dimitri Mortelmans and Ariane Pailhé
Copyright: Wavebreakmedia  

What are the two most important findings of your research for FamiliesAndSocieties?

Family life has changed tremendously during the past three decades, with three major developments: the shift from marriages to cohabitations, the rise in union break-ups, and the rise in children born out of wedlock. These trends have already been studied and described extensively in the wider European context. Our work package for FamiliesAndSocieties had the specific goal to go beyond these three major developments. What we envisaged for our study was to see, how these major developments in family life complement other, more hidden developments that are outside the scope of official statistics or large pan-European surveys.

The matter is really too complex to identify just two major results from all the studies that were conducted. We advanced the knowledge about single parenthood, LAT (Living Apart Together) relationships, relationship break-ups, and multiple residence families (where family members live in more than one dwelling). We also established a cross-national database on the legal recognition of same-sex couples, marriage and various forms of registered partnerships. This has been a tremendous effort, but we think it is worth it, as it will open up many new research avenues. Research on same-sex families is typically disadvantaged by a lack of cross-national data, but this database can serve as a solid foundation to gain more insights into gay and lesbian couples, and a source for comparing same-sex couples with different-sex couples.


You also looked at different types of parenting, and what role they play when it comes to children’s well-being. Could you please explain what kind of effects you found?

Among the various family forms we investigated, the one which was closely related with children’s well-being is single parent families. This type of family is a growing phenomenon and forms a significant share of families with children. We found that in both the Nordic and Mediterranean welfare states, single parents are the type of family that are suffering the most from the effects caused by the current economic crisis. Lower educated individuals now have a higher chance of becoming single parents and in the current economic climate, single mothers are less likely to be in paid employment than mothers in “intact” families. Also, decreasing labour market participation of single mothers weakens their economic position and contributes to elevated poverty rates among single mothers. Compared to the 90s, single mothers’ educational profiles became more disadvantageous, which increasingly contributed to their weaker employment situation. In the context of the economic crisis, education is becoming more and more important to determine the well-being and life opportunities of mothers and their children.


There is a variety of new family arrangements, e.g. people “living apart together” (LAT). What do we know about this group?

LAT relationships are not a new family form. It has existed for decades, but we do see a clear increase in this kind of living arrangement. In France, already one in ten families can be considered as a LAT relationship. In addition, LAT has also become less of a hidden family form as societal acceptance has grown over the years. A LAT partnership is a multi-stage or even multi-faceted phenomenon. They can be considered on the one hand as a form of (exclusive) dating, and on the other hand also as a committed relationship with or without the intention of starting to live together. This broad variety of LAT relationships leads to the occurrence of LAT throughout the life course and also poses challenges to its measurement in large-scale survey research. Our research shows that LAT is a highly transitional family form with either a quick break-up or cohabitation as the final outcome. Either the relationship was an experiment that ends in a rather fast way or it is a long-term commitment with the potential desire to live together.

This last point also highlights a more hidden dimension in LAT: The unequal power relations inside these types of couples. The wish of one partner to not cohabit could be enough to stay in the LAT relationship even against the other partner’s dream of evolving towards a cohabiting relationship. In addition, legal barriers turned out to hinder LAT relations since social security benefits sometimes delay household formation. The fear of losing benefits and the economic backlash associated with it, is bigger than the wish of a couple to live together.


What are your main concerns regarding the rights of families that do not take the traditional form of “mother, father, and child” living in the same household?

Homosexual families for example have become more and more accepted, and significant changes occurred during the last twenty years in the way these families are legally acknowledged in European countries. This began in 1989 when Denmark became the first country to offer a legal framework for the recognition of same-sex couples. Inequality with heterosexual couples is persistent regarding access to Assisted Reproduction Technologies or parenting by adoption, even when permitted by law. If we look at another example, three- and four-parent families, the non-biological parents have no legal recognition. These administrative constraints are an important issue from the legal and practical point of view. The impossibility for a child to have more than two legal parents is a barrier to the well-being of these family structures. There is still a lot to do for multi-parent families, even in countries such as Iceland where a law on children closely protects the best interest of the child.


How could these concerns be addressed by policy makers? What are the most pressing issues?

Lone parenthood continues to be a family form at high risk of poverty. This increases children’s chances of facing inequalities throughout their lifetimes. The accumulation of disadvantages related to educational level and lone parenthood demand targeted family and labour policies.

Regarding same-sex couples, legal support is essential to foster social inclusion of same-sex couples: Beyond specific legal devices and their actual use in the everyday life of lesbian and gay individuals, the first issue at stake is the need to be treated equally. The approval of equal marriage and recognition of parenting for LGBT couples is essential for their social inclusion. The law also needs to cover all possible family structures (such as three- or four-parent families).




Dr Dimitri Mortelmans is Senior Full Professor in Sociology at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Antwerp, Belgium. His research is currently focusing on family sociology and sociology of labour. He is also interested on divorce, new constituted families, gendered labour careers and work-life balance.

Dr Ariane Pailhé is Senior Researcher at the French National Demographic Institute (INED), France. Her main research interests include labor economics, economics of family, gender economics. She is currently working on gender discrimination on the labor market, employment status and fertility, and couple formation and fertility of immigrants and second-generation immigrants



This interview is part of the project “FamiliesAndSocieties – Changing families and sustainable societies: Policy contexts and diversity over the life course and across generations”, coordinated by Stockholm University. This collaborative research project is financed in the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (grant no. 320116) © Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science.