Marital or civil partnership status harmonised standard

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:27 November 2020
Owner:GSS Harmonisation Team
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics
Type:Harmonisation standards and guidance
Contact:GSSHelp@statistics.gov.uk

What we mean by harmonisation

Harmonisation is the process of making statistics and data more comparable, consistent, and coherent. Harmonised standards set out how to collect and report statistics to make sure they can be compared effectively across different data collections in the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Harmonisation produces more useful statistics that give users a greater level of understanding about a topic.

What we mean by marital or civil partnership status

Marital and civil partnership status refers to the state of being legally married or in a civil partnership. This is also known as “civil status”. People who are the following are classed as being in a legally registered partnership:

  • married
  • in a legally registered civil partnership
  • separated but still legally married
  • separated but still legally in a registered civil partnership

This does not mean relationship status, because some relationship statuses such as “engaged” or “in a relationship” are not legally recognised. Marital or civil partnership status relates to an individual and is independent of living arrangements. For example, a couple may move in together but are still legally never married or never in a registered civil partnership, or another example would be a person who has had a divorce from their previous marriage and are now living with a new partner, despite this their legal status is still divorced. This standard can be used with the cohabitation harmonised standard or household relationships harmonised standard to help you find out more about relationships within a household.

Questions and response options (inputs)

The harmonised question on this topic is designed to collect basic information. It can be used in most surveys. It is not designed to replace questions used in specialist surveys where more detailed analysis is needed.

The questions

The harmonised standard can collect data on who is or has been in a marriage or civil partnership. In these cases, we suggest a one-stage question. However, in some instances it may be that an additional level of detail on the sex of the respondent’s partner is required, we recommend adding a second-stage question.

Question stem

What is your legal marital or registered civil partnership status?

Response options
  1. Never married and never legally registered in a civil partnership
  2. Married
  3. In a legally registered civil partnership
  4. Separated but still legally married
  5. Separated but still legally in a civil partnership
  6. Divorced
  7. Formerly in a civil partnership which is now legally dissolved
  8. Widowed
  9. A surviving member of a legally registered civil partnership

We recommend that interviewers read the question stem and response options to the respondent before expecting them to answer. We also recommend using showcards in face-to-face settings.

Question stem

What is your legal marital or registered civil partnership status?

Response options
  1. Never married and never legally registered in a civil partnership,
  2. Married,
  3. In a legally registered civil partnership,
  4. Separated but still legally married,
  5. Separated but still legally in a civil partnership,
  6. Divorced,
  7. Formerly in a civil partnership which is now legally dissolved,
  8. Widowed,
  9. A surviving member of a legally registered civil partnership?

If there is a data need for the sex of the respondent’s partner, we suggest using the Census 2021 for England and Wales second-stage question, which is available on the Demography question development for Census 2021 webpage, in conjunction with the marital or civil partnership status harmonised standard. This will enable the collection of data on same-sex or opposite-sex marital or civil partnership status, regardless of who is living in the household or where their partner is residing.

Question stem

The Census 2021 second-stage question asks:

  • Who is your legal marriage to? or Who was your legal marriage to?
  • Who is your legal civil partnership to? or Who was your legal civil partnership to?

Response options

  1. Someone of the opposite sex
  2. Someone of the same sex

This second-stage question would need to be routed based on the respondent’s response to the marital or civil partnership harmonised standard, which would influence the question stem wording. The question stem also changes tense depending on the respondent’s response to the harmonised standard, to reflect whether they are still in a marriage or registered civil partnership, or not. More information on routing is available in the Census 2021 Demography question development report.

Using this standard

Guidance for data collection

This marital or civil partnership harmonised standard is a single select question, meaning respondents should only select one answer.

Question placement

Demographic questions such as marital or civil partnership status are usually placed near the start of a survey.

Types of data collection this standard is suitable for

Variations on this standard are used in many different modes, such as face-to-face, telephone, paper and online.

Online mode

For online surveys, response options should be tick boxes, and respondents should only select one answer.

Face-to-face mode

We would advise using showcards in face-to-face interviewer mode to help the respondent remember the possible response options. The question and response wording should stay the same.

Telephone mode

The interviewer should still ask the question, even if they feel they have established the answer. The respondent may give their response before hearing the response options, or the interviewer can prompt a response by reading the possible options given in the standard. If a respondent replies “single”, the interviewer should clarify which response option best applies to the respondent’s situation to ensure they code the response correctly.

Using this standard in conjunction with other harmonised standards

This standard is suitable for collecting data on legal marital or civil partnership status, and therefore will not provide insight into persons who are:

  • living together, or “cohabiting”
  • in casual, dating or long-term relationships — for example, common law marriage
  • engaged to be married
  • engaged to enter a civil partnership

We would advise that you use the cohabitation harmonised standard or the household relationship harmonised standard to collect data on these characteristics.

Using soft checks for respondents under 18

The introduction of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 in England and Wales now means that 16 and 17-year-olds are no longer allowed to marry or enter a civil partnership, even if they have parental consent. In such cases where a respondent under 18 is asked this marital or civil partnership status question, it may be deemed necessary to introduce a soft check, such as interviewer prompt, to ensure the correct option is chosen.

Presenting and reporting the data (outputs)

This standard can be output in two ways:

  • the number of respondents that select each response option
  • summing and categorising response options to show the number of respondents in legally registered marriages and civil partnerships or not

The following individual response options describe people who are in a legally registered marriage or civil partnership:

  • Married
  • In a legally registered civil partnership
  • Separated but still legally married
  • Separated but still legally in a civil partnership

The following individual response options describe people who are not in a legally registered marriage or civil partnership:

  • Never married and never legally registered in a civil partnership
  • Divorced
  • Formerly in a civil partnership which is now legally dissolved
  • Widowed
  • A surviving member of a legally registered civil partnership

Deriving same or opposite sex marital or civil partnership status

It is possible to derive same-sex or opposite-sex marital or civil partnership status by analysing and combining marital or civil partnership status data and data collected with the sex and gender harmonisation guidance or household relationships harmonised standard. It is only possible to derive same-sex or opposite-sex marital or civil partnership status if the partners live together. However, for example, if a person is in a civil partnership, but their partner works away and are living elsewhere, it will not be possible to derive their partner’s sex.

The household relationships harmonised standard helps determine the relationships that the respondent has with the other people in their household. As an example, if we know a respondent identifies their sex as male and reports living with another person who is their civil partner, who is also identified as being male, it can be inferred that the respondent is in a same-sex civil partnership.

We note that this method is limited in its ability to derive same-sex or opposite-sex marriages or civil partnerships. It does not work where a respondent’s spouse or civil partner does not live or reside in the same household. This method also does not work where someone with a deceased partner selects:

  • Widowed
  • A surviving partner of a legally registered civil partnership

In some instances, it may or may not be possible to derive the sex of who the respondent was married to or in a civil partnership with. This may be because of the living circumstances of the respondent. This may affect the accuracy and quality of the findings. Therefore, we suggest being cautious when trying to derive the sex of the respondent’s partner using the following response options:

  • Separated, but still legally married
  • Separated, but still legally in a civil partnership
  • Divorced
  • Formally in a civil partnership which is now legally dissolved

If there is a need for more specific data on same-sex or opposite-sex marital or civil partnership status, regardless of who resides in the household, Census 2021 for England and Wales developed an additional routed question to capture this information.

Comparability

The marital or civil partnership harmonised standard can be used to output legal marital or civil partnership status. This means a survey that uses the harmonised standard can output data that is comparable to other surveys that use the standard. But we would not recommend comparing data from surveys that use the standard with data from other marital or civil partnership status publications that do not use the harmonised measure, unless stated otherwise.

Comparability with the previous version of the standard

This updated harmonised standard is fully comparable and consistent with Census 2021. The previous harmonised standard, which was updated in 2020, was the same as the census. The updates to this standard are small and do not affect outputs. The updates are added to reduce respondent burden with the question.

The difference is the addition of the word “legally” in the civil partnership response options. This difference to the standard makes the question clearer and provides more guidance to help respondents correctly complete the question.

Updates to the harmonised standard

The GSS Harmonisation team undertook several research activities to update the standard. These activities include, but are not limited to:

  • conducting desk research to understand the data landscape
  • exploring current legislation
  • identifying questions currently in use
  • collaborating with topic experts

During this review, we found that the previous harmonised standard was not widely being used. This seems to be due to:

  • misunderstanding around purpose of the question
  • multiple recent legislative changes
  • multiple survey questionnaires identified for review had kept same-sex specifications in relation to civil partnerships

Since the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 was amended to allow opposite-sex couples to form civil partnerships, the terminology in use is now considered outdated. Other changes to the law have impacted upon possible marriage and civil partnership arrangements. For example, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was introduced to recognise same-sex marriages in England, Wales, and Scotland. And then in 2019, following the introduction of the Marriage (Same-sex Couples) and Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2019 same-sex marriages became legally recognised in Northern Ireland. More recently, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 came into force which has raised the minimum age at which people can enter into marriage or a civil partnership to 18 years old in England and Wales.

We identified that the current data landscape could be better harmonised and found evidence that the current standard may not be performing as well as it could. Census 2021 data about marriage and civil partnership status identified and rectified implausibly high numbers for some response options, which suggests that the question is sometimes misinterpreted.

The ONS Labour Market team built upon the Census 2021 question as part of their transformation work for the Transformed Labour Force Survey (TLFS). The team have developed a slightly different marital or civil partnership status question for the TLFS. We have identified that data collectors are using this question more widely than the harmonised standard. For this reason, we compared the harmonised standard with the TLFS question to assess whether it would be feasible to use TLFS as our harmonised standard. To ensure comparable, consistent and coherent data, the decision was made to use the TLFS response options, based on:

  • the feedback we gathered from stakeholders, including cross-government survey owners and analysts, topic experts, devolved administrations and Cabinet Office Equalities Office
  • comparisons of TLFS and Census 2021 frequencies to assess and ensure continued comparability and timeseries

We also compared the main differences between the current standard and the proposed TLFS one. This included assessing the question against known mental models of respondents when completing the question. For example, some people view the question as relationship status rather than a legal status and tend to report their status as “cohabiting”.

Related links

There are several other demographic information harmonised standards:

Contact us

We are always interested in hearing from users so we can develop our work. If you use or produce statistics based on this topic, contact us by emailing Harmonisation@statistics.gov.uk.

Updates

Date Changes
7 July 2023 The July 2023 update to this standard includes clearer messaging on the purpose of the standard, clearer response options to aid respondent understanding, and additional guidance on using and outputting the standard.
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