IUSSP Seminar on Union Breakdown and Repartnering around the World

Montréal, Canada, 4–6 May 2015 

Organized by the IUSSP Scientific Panel on Nuptiality

  • Chair: Julieta Quilodran (El Colegio de México)
  • Members: Narayanaswamy Audinarayana (Bharathiar University); Andrew Cherlin (Johns Hopkins University); Clara Cortina (Universitat Pompeu Fabra); Bilampoa Gnoumou Thiombiano (Université de Ouagadougou); Benoît Laplante (Institut national de la recherche scientifique).


Around the world, there is a great variation in levels of union dissolution. Increasing rates of separation and divorce appear related to the increase in cohabiting unions witnessed at varying degrees in different regions of the world. These trends in informal unions, separation and divorce may lead to the formation of new conjugal unions and the creation of new family forms which, in turn, has implications for individual life courses, family responsibilities, gender relations and the well-being of women, men and children. In this context, the IUSSP Scientific Panel on Nuptiality decided to focus its second seminar on the study of separation, divorce, repartnering and remarriage as well as how they vary in timing and intensity, and according to location (country, regions, rural/urban), cultural and ideational aspects, and socio-economic characteristics (education, occupation, gender, etc.). 


The Seminar was held at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Montreal (Canada) from 4 to 6 May 2015. Thirty-three researchers from fifteen countries attended the Seminar as speakers, discussants, special guests and panel members. The vast majority of participants were demographers studying at or working in a university or research institute. The authors used various data sources (census, administrative data, surveys and interviews) and methods, depending upon the availability of data in their country/region of interest. They focused in large part on separation and divorce, a smaller number of papers were on repartnering and remarriage and a few were on the consequences of union breakdown. Three papers more specifically addressed the relationship between women’s autonomy and divorce. In addition to the regular sessions, there were three special invited presentations.


The organisers designed the program by grouping together papers by their method or specific topic:

• Longitudinal and cross-sectional perspective on union breakdown

• Micro and macro consequences of union breakdown

• Cultural perspective on union breakdown

• Socioeconomic perspective on union breakdown

• Repartnering

• Family structure and family relationships after

• Women and divorce 

• Concluding remarks


The seminar ended with an overview by Andrew Cherlin who highlighted the main conclusions drawn from all the presentations. One of his remarks was that there is a great variation in levels of union dissolution between regions of the world, but also within regions and countries. However, dissolution rates appear to be increasing in what William J. Goode called low-divorce systems and are levelling off or decreasing in high-divorce systems. This led Andrew Cherlin to hypothesize that we may be seeing the beginning of a convergence in dissolution patterns towards moderate to high dissolution rates around the world.  


Andrew Cherlin also advised demographers to remain cautious and investigate the meaning behind the data they use as well as try to capture the complexity of couple formation, breakdown and repartnering processes. Some of the research presented tried to go beyond the usual data by asking about perceptions and motivations. Others attempted to disentangle factors from different levels of analysis to provide a more complete picture of trends and their determinants. Oftentimes, the data demographers use is limited in time, tries to equate lengthy processes with an event happening at a precise point in time or fails to grasp relationships that transcend the confines of the household. Those are some of the challenges we encounter in researching conjugal trajectories. 

A few research gaps and policy implications

  • It becomes increasingly difficult to study conjugal transitions in sub-Saharan Africa because of fewer and fewer surveys that collect marital histories. 
  • With the increase of cohabiting unions in North America and Europe, it is necessary to include both types of unions, cohabitation and marriage, in the study of union breakdown and repartnering. However, the meaning and the levels of commitment of these two types of unions differ and this affects union dissolution rates.
  • The study of family trajectories need to transcend the household, which is sometimes difficult for instance with census data. 
  • In some countries, cohabiting unions evolved outside the law and are considered as unions without contract. There are sometimes no legal dispositions concerning the division of assets or maintenance payments to the ex-spouse, thus challenging the legal system. 
  • Knowledge is still scarce concerning women’s economic well-being following union breakdown and repartnering and how it compares to men’s. 


To read more on the content of the papers, Andrew Cherlin’s conclusions, and the research gaps, challenges, and policy implications, read the full report:



 The seminar report, programme and participant list.

 The Working Papers


Publication Plan: A selection of papers has been submitted for publication as a special collection of Demographic Research.


Funding: Financial support for seminar was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et Culture, the Population Change and Lifecourse Strategic Knowledge Cluster, the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, the Partenariat Familles en mouvance and the Wellcome Trust.