Couple breakup and children’s living conditions

CC Matt’s homes


Although in France the vast majority of children live with their two parents, couple breakup, usually in the form of divorce or separation, is an increasingly frequent event in families’ lives.

Every year nearly 350,000 couples separate; half of them have dependent children. And in 10,000 additional couples with children under 18 years, the death of one of the spouses or partners brings an end to the couple.


Of the 13.7 million children under 18 years living in France in 2011,

  • 71% lived with their two biological parents;
  • 18% lived in single-parent families;
  • 7% lived with one of their parents and a stepparent;
  • 4% lived in a step- or blended family with stepsiblings.

Data from the Enquête sur les Relations Familiales et Intergénérationelles (ERFI : the French version of the international Generations and Gender Survey ) have led to finding that the proportion of children having experienced the separation of their parents has considerably increased over time:

15% of children born in 1975 and under 14 years of age saw their parents separate (including through the death of a parent); the figure was 23% for the generation born in 1990 (proportion based on mothers’ reporting, as fathers tend to under-report union breakup).

The proportion of children having had this experience seems to have stagnated since the early 2000s.

Couple separations affect the living conditions of the parents and children involved. In cases of divorce, the vast majority of child custody decisions (81% in 2012) show parental agreement on their children’s subsequent residence situation.

  • In 71% of cases, residence is awarded exclusively to the mother;
  • In 13% of cases, exclusively to the father;
  • In 16% of cases, alternating residence is specified.

However, no more than a very small minority of children under 18 years experience alternating residence in France: only 2.5% in 2004, compared to 1.3% in 1986.

Moreover, no variation has been observed in children’s residence situation by age. However, the alternating residence choice is more often found for boys than girls, accounting for

  • 16.2% of boys whose parents are separated;
  • 13.3% of girls whose parents are separated.
    The risk of poverty that children living with separated parents are exposed to varies by residence situation. Findings based on data from INSEE’s Revenues Fiscaux et Sociaux survey for 2011 show the following poverty rates for parents whose children are residing with them:
  • 38% for mothers living without a partner;
  • 26% for fathers living without a partner;
  • 16% for parents who have repartnered.

Furthermore, living conditions in single-parent families are less favorable than those of couples. According to findings based on data from the Etude Longitudinale Française depuis l’Enfance survey (ELFE; French Longitudinal Study of Children):

  • only 28% of single-parent families with a child born in 2011 own their home, as opposed to 63% of parents living in a couple;
  • more than 22% of single-parent families report having difficulty paying their bills, as opposed to 9% of parents living in a couple.

Child poverty is very much linked to the employment situation of their parent(s), especially if they have only one parent and therefore only one potential resource "provider" or if they have several siblings, which increases consumption needs relative to available resources.

In 2010:

  • 39% of poor children lived in a family where no parent was working, whereas this was only the case for 3% of other children;
  • 35% of poor children lived with one parent only, whereas only 12% of other children were living in single-parent families.


- Olivier Chardon, Fabienne Daguet, Émilie Vivas, 2008,  Single-parent families - Difficulties with work and housing, Insee Première 1195
- Haut Conseil de la Famille, 2014, Les ruptures familiales [FR]
- Cédric Houdré, Nathalie Missègue, Juliette Ponceau, 2011, Vue d’ensemble - Inégalités de niveau de vie et pauvreté 2011 [FR], Insee
- Aude Lapinte, 2013, One child in ten lives in a blended family, Insee Première 1470

Contact: Lidia Panico et Olivier Thévenon

Online: June 2014