• Alaka BasuAlaka Basu
      Alaka M. Basu is Professor, Development Sociology, Cornell University, and a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health
      Alessandro RosinaAlessandro Rosina
      Professor of Demography and Director, Center for Applied Statistics in Business and Economics, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
      Andrea BrandoliniAndrea Brandolini
      Head of Statistical Analysis Directorate, Bank of Italy
      Bruno MasquelierBruno Masquelier
      Professor of Demography, University of Louvain, Belgium
      Cheikh MbackéCheikh Mbacké
      Associate Professor, Sociology department, Laval University
      Cinzia ContiCinzia Conti
      Researcher at Istat, Head of Unit on Foreign Presence and Social Dynamics
      Corrado BonifaziCorrado Bonifazi
      Director of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council, Rome Italy
      Ernestina CoastErnestina Coast
      Associate Professor of Population Studies, London School of Economics
      Wang FengFeng Wang
      Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, USA, and Professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China fwang(at)
      Francesco BillariFrancesco Billari
      Professor of Sociology and Demography, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Bocconi University. • Personal webpage • francesco.billari(at)
      Gilles PisonGilles Pison
      Professor at Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle and Director of Research at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) (Paris)
      Gustavo De SantisGustavo De Santis
      Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Jacques VallinJacques Vallin
      Emeritus Research Director at INED, Paris; Honorary President of IUSSP
      John KnodelJohn Knodel
      Research Professor Emeritus, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan (USA) and International staff, College of Populations Studies, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)
      Letizia MencariniLetizia Mencarini
      Associate professor of Demography, Bocconi University - Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy & Collegio Carlo Alberto; P.I. ERC P.I. ERC project n. 313617 (2013-2018) SWELLFER
      Letizia TanturriLetizia Tanturri
      Associate Professor of Demography - Department of Statistical Sciences - University of Padova • Personal webpage ml.tanturri(at)
      Massimo livi BacciMassimo livi Bacci
      Emeritus Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Monica Das GuptaMonica Das Gupta
      Research Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, USA
      Paula Miranda-RibeiroPaula Miranda-Ribeiro
      Professor, Demography Department and Cedeplar, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.
      Peter McDonaldPeter McDonald
      Professor of Demography in the Australian National University. Honorary President of IUSSP and winner of the Irene B. Taeuber Award
      Roberto ImpicciatoreRoberto Impicciatore
      Università di Bologna.
      Salvatore StrozzaSalvatore Strozza
      Professor of Demography, University Federico II, Naples (Italy)
      Stefano MolinaStefano Molina
      Senior Program Officer, Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, Italy
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    • N-IUSSP is a new IUSSP news magazine, which will disseminate scientific findings from demographic research carried out all over the world. The practical implications of current trends, the risks and potentialities of emerging situations, the pros and cons of specific laws are discussed in rigorous but plain language.

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In France, second unions now more resilient than first
En France, les deuxièmes unions sont devenues plus stables que les premières

Eva Beaujouan

If at first you don’t succeed …
The first union used to be the one that would last “until death do us part”. The transformation in partnership behaviour emerging in most European countries since the 1960s has coincided with new attitudes and expectations about conjugal life. Partnerships have changed profoundly because: marriage has lost its universal appeal and is no longer considered a milestone marking the passage into adulthood; having children is no longer seen as a necessary part of conjugal life; and both unmarried cohabitation and separation have become widespread, although divorce rates have recently stabilised in some countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States (Beaujouan & Ní Bhrolcháin 2011).

I investigated the changes in first and second unions over time, focusing on their stability as well as on their experience of marriage and childbearing (Beaujouan 2016). A union is defined as having lived together with a partner for at least three months, married or unmarried. I based my work on women who were surveyed in the French Generation and Gender Survey (ERFI, INED-INSEE 2005) who formed a union between 1950 and 2005 (4464 women aged 25–79).

First, second … What’s the difference?

The main result is that second and first unions are more similar than they used to be. As first unions are increasingly childless when they break up, women are increasingly entering second unions without step-children: the share of women forming second unions in which neither they nor the partners had previously had children increased gradually from 23 per cent in 1965–79 to 32 per cent in 1990–99. Second unions were also always more often unmarried and childless than first ones. This has not changed, but the contrast has narrowed as first unions have also more often become unmarried and childless. And above all, first unions have become more unstable: their dissolution rates rose far more rapidly than those of second unions, which had initially been higher. As a result, we observe a general convergence in the likelihood of first and second unions breaking up. Only one out of ten (11 per cent) first unions that began in 1965–79 broke up within ten years, whereas almost one-quarter (23 per cent) of second unions beginning in that period broke up. In contrast, around one-third of both first and second unions initiated in the 1990s were dissolved within ten years (Figure 1).

Schermata 2016-07-18 alle 07.23.25Moreover, if we focus on specific union types such as comparisons of unmarried first and second unions or analyses of first and second unions with shared children, we find that second unions tend to be more stable if other factors are held equal, for example: year of entering union, relative age at union formation, or experiencing parental separation. One of the key factors contributing to the fragility of second unions is the frequent presence of step-children, as partnerships with stepchildren have a much higher likelihood of dissolution than other partnerships.

Overall, the rapid increase in the instability of first unions in France has clearly contributed to first and second unions becoming more similar. At a time when young people spend more years studying and often postpone having their first child until their thirties, they spend more years in relatively informal and childless partnerships, which are also more fluid and unstable (Rault & Régnier-Loilier 2015). Could it therefore be that second unions, which form later in life, are gradually replacing first unions as the more established and stable type of partnership?


Beaujouan, É. (2016). Second unions now more stable than first? A comparison of separation risks by union order in France. European Journal of Population – Revue européenne de Démographie, 32, 293–321.

Beaujouan, É., & Ní Bhrolcháin, M. (2011). Cohabitation and marriage in Britain since the 1970s. Population Trends, 145, 35–59.

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



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