Life

How the ‘Millennial Divorce’ Became the Defining Break-Up of a Generation

As modern couples choose to cohabit without tying the knot, splitting up after buying a house together has been dubbed the “millennial divorce”.
January 26, 2021, 12:20pm
A man carries a box out of a terraced house.
Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters. Compso

Phoebe, 22, started dating her sixth form sweetheart John* back in 2016. It has now been just over a year since they split up. “He said he fell out of love with me, which was crazy considering we had a baby due in four months and a wedding planned for August,” Phoebe explains. But perhaps the “craziest” part is the fact that Phoebe and John had moved into a house they’d bought together just ten months before calling quits on their relationship.

Advertisement

As nightmarish as this situation sounds, nowadays, it’s hardly unprecedented. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of cohabiting couple families is growing faster than married couple families, with an increase of 25.8 percent between 2008 and 2018. It’s unsurprising that “cohabiting couple families” are on the up, given the fact that heterosexual marriage rates are steadily declining. Recent ONS figures found that the number of opposite-sex couples getting married has fallen to the lowest level in history, decreasing by 45 percent since 1972.

For some millennials, buying a house is more important than tying the knot – and with our meagre salaries, it really can be a matter of choosing between one or the other. According to wedding planning website Hitched, the average cost of a wedding in 2019 was £31,974, while according to Which?, an average deposit of £46,187 is required to get on the property ladder in the UK. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that millennial couples are beginning to regard buying a house together as both a better way of spending their money and taking a relationship “to the next level”.

It also makes sense that millennials are eager to get on the property ladder with a partner, given that research conducted by Hamptons International found that the average single first-time buyer needs ten and a half years to save for a 15 percent deposit. In London, this goes up to 17 years. 

Advertisement

“[John] and I both had stable jobs and a combined income of £45,000 a year,” Phoebe says. “There was no way at the age or time that we looked we could’ve afforded to buy alone.”

As Vicky Spratt wrote in a recent piece for VICE, if getting the keys to a new home with your partner is essentially a “millennial marriage”, a situation where things go south after you’ve put down a deposit is a “millennial divorce”.

Leanne*, 28, is currently going through her own millennial divorce. She and her then-partner had a turbulent relationship and he suggested buying a house during one of their happier periods. “He sat me down and said we needed a mortgage,” she remembers. “He said I just needed to pay my half and take out a loan for the deposit. Eleven-K later, we had a deposit and then a house.”

Bianca, 28, has experienced something similar. She and her then-partner were living in a shared room in a flatshare when Bianca landed a managerial job at a major tech company, giving them a combined salary sufficient enough to buy their first flat. “We were so fixated on this goal of getting on the property ladder, it all happened quickly. Probably too quickly,” she says

For both Bianca and Leanne, things turned sour fast. “Once we had the keys, the situation deteriorated immediately. It felt more like his house than both of ours,” Leanne recalls. Her partner’s behaviour rapidly worsened and became abusive, and so one night, her aunt and mother moved her out while he was at work. She says that she “felt free” – but her problems were far from over.

Advertisement

Leanne’s partner began renting out their house without her permission, and stopped contributing to repayments for the £11,000 loan Leanne had taken out for the deposit. “I was financially ruined and had to join a debt management plan,” she explains. She also hired a solicitor, but eventually ran out of money and was unable to afford the legal fees. “I was pushed out of the situation,” she says. “And here I am today. Struggling and short of money until I can fix this problem.”

Bianca’s relationship deteriorated with similar speed. “Our relationship unravelled throughout the process of buying the flat, furnishing it and making it a home. When we broke up, my ex-boyfriend simply said, ‘I'm not ready’,” she recalls. “I went from owning a home with this person to him leaving me alone, in a flat that was meant to be our shared home. I called my parents hysterically crying and my dad drove for hours in the middle of the night to London so I wasn't alone.”

Bianca continues: “I didn't know how a realised dream could go so drastically wrong.” She was left grappling with the emotional, legal and financial fallout as she continued to live in the flat. “[My ex] offered to pay his share of the next three months of the mortgage, and I quickly found a tenant as we fortunately had a small second bedroom.” 

Now, Bianca is preparing to move out of the flat for the last time, but it has taken two years for the process to be over, and she ultimately had to pay back her partner’s share of the deposit. “It was awful,” she admits.

Advertisement

Like Leanne, Phoebe is still struggling with the aftermath of her millennial divorce from John. “We are totally stuck. This massive thing is tied to us both, and the huge responsibility of ensuring the mortgage is paid each month has made us both so skint,” she explains. “We argue so much about who’s paying what.” Thankfully, Phoebe and John have both come to an amicable agreement to sell the house – but this wasn’t an easy decision. “This absolutely broke my heart,” Phoebe confesses. “If I could go back and tell myself what I know now, I would’ve never bought that house.”

Unfortunately, neither Leanne, Bianca nor Phoebe can go back in time – but it is possible for others to learn from their stories.

Graham Taylor, director and financial advisor at mortgage brokerage Hudson Rose, urges unmarried couples to be cautious when buying a home together. “If you purchase a property and are not married, and then subsequently split up, there are fewer legal protections in place to help decide ‘who keeps what’,” he explains. This doesn’t mean that you should never buy a house with your partner, unmarried, but it does mean that you need to take extra precautions, like drawing up a cohabitation agreement, for instance.

Taylor encourages couples to communicate honestly when buying a house. “Be open with each other about your fears if things go wrong. If someone is providing the deposit while the other person has the income, you need to have a frank conversation about what happens to the deposit if you split and the property has to be sold.” Taylor also recommends speaking to a good conveyancing solicitor who can talk you through the ins and outs of a deed of trust, which can help protect someone’s equity in the property should a split occur.

But Taylor adds: “It’s not all doom and gloom.” With a lot of frank communication and adequate precaution, it’s always possible to make cohabiting in a jointly owned house work. He surmises: “Enjoy the process, get some awesome brokers and solicitors in your corner, and see what you learn along the way. Buying your first home is always something you remember.”

It’s certain that Leanne, Bianca, and Phoebe will never forget their experience of buying a first home. They have learned a lot, too. Bianca has been in a much happier relationship for the past two years and plans to take things slower this time round – but she hasn’t lost her faith in love. 

“I know that making a home with the right person is still worth it,” she says. “And I know I can survive the worst case scenario, too.”

*Names have been changed.