Family Relationships Quarterly No. 2

Family Relationships Quarterly No. 2

AFRC Newsletter No. 2 — December 2006

In this issue


Welcome to the second edition of Family Relationships Quarterly, bringing you the latest news on research and events aimed at enhancing family relationships.

The Internet has brought about massive changes to the ways that family members communicate, between themselves and others. While the changes have often been positive, for example, the sharing of information and photos with family members, the Internet has also negatively affected intimate relationships due to the simplification of access to materials, information and other people. Our feature article looks at the increasing prevalence of Internet affairs, and offers guidelines for practitioners in providing services to clients facing these issues.

Our second article examines the issue of family involvement in therapeutic treatment for young men with sexually abusive behaviours. Cameron Boyd, Research Officer with the Institute's Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, discusses the delicate balance between the need for parents to continue in a parenting role for the young person, whilst ensuring the safety of other children in the home. These factors are a cornerstone to effective treatment.

Ruth Weston and Lixia Qu follow up their summary of trends in couple formation from the first issue of the Family Relationships Quarterly by examining patterns of couple dissolution.

There are also our regular newsletter sections on conferences and literature highlights from recent additions to the Institute's library catalogue.

As always, the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse (AFRC) is keen to receive feedback on how we can better meet the needs of those committed to working to improve family relationships, so please provide us with your comments on current or future publications. If you would like to contribute an article or review to Family Relationships Quarterly, details of how to do so are provided on page 17 of the newsletter. All current and past AFRC publications are available on our website, as well as bibliographies on a range of family-related topics, links to relevant websites and information on useful resources.

Elly Robinson
Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse 

Internet affairs: Guidelines for practitioners

Elly Robinson

The Internet has revolutionised personal and business communication, allowing people from across the globe to exchange information and greetings in a matter of seconds. Within a few decades, the Internet has moved from being a device designed to share research between a few academic and military agencies (Young, 2004) to becoming a communication space used in over half of Australian homes (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005).

The speed with which the world has embraced the Internet has raised concerns about society's ability to cope with the new problems and anxieties that have accompanied its use. Some issues capture the public's attention and fascination, such as access to online pornography. Other issues are less likely to be highlighted, such as the mental health impacts of excessive use (Mitchell, Becker-Blease & Finkelhor, 2005).

One problem is that the evolution of the Internet is outpacing the development of research and guidelines for its use (Morris, 2002). As a consequence, the body of knowledge that defines, theorises and identifies effective responses to problematic Internet use is still in its infancy. Researchers are grappling with issues such as whether Internet addiction exists, how it is defined (Grohol, 2005), or how much time online constitutes addictive behaviour (Mitchell et al., 2005). Another area of inquiry is whether the Internet itself is less the problem and more the tool by which an individual can engage in other addictive behaviours, such as gambling or viewing pornography (Widyanto & Griffiths, 2006). Problems are more likely to exist for people who have difficulty regulating their behaviour, as the Internet is characterised by its accessibility and anonymity (Morris, 2002).

One area of problematic Internet use that is becoming a common presenting issue in counselling, is relationship issues arising from one partner's use of the Internet (Morris, 2002). Mitchell et al. (2005), in their survey of over 1,500 mental health professionals, found that approximately one in five clients in mental health treatment were accessing help due to the negative effects of Internet sexual activities. A common scenario was a husband or wife who had left their relationship after meeting someone online, only to have the relationship not work out. The couple had come to counselling to try to repair the damage. Another scenario was problems developing between a couple due to one or the other engaging in online sexual conversations or activities.

Three factors make Internet affairs a growing issue. Firstly, relationships can develop more quickly due to lowered inhibitions, absent physical cues and details, and the ease of exchanging information. There are no real-life pressures to deal with in this artificial environment, and people can fantasise about each other (Morris, 2002). Secondly, although infidelity is not new, the Internet creates an environment where access to potential partners is unlimited and around the clock. Contact can be made from home and there is less risk of public exposure (Mitchell et al., 2005; Young, 2004). Lastly, many people think that Internet affairs are less deceptive as there is no physical contact (Morris, 2002). There is yet to be a set of clearly defined norms as to what is acceptable and what is not, for example is it infidelity to have sexual conversations with strangers? What if you are pretending to be someone else? What if you engaged in cybersex? (Mitchell et al., 2005).

While there are a number of grey areas regarding what constitutes an Internet affair, Mitchell et al. (2005) suggest that it is up to the individuals involved in the relationship to decide for themselves what is acceptable and what is not. If the individual having the Internet relationship is in a committed real-life relationship, they may need to acknowledge that communication of an intimate nature with someone on the Internet is a breach of trust and commitment to their partner (Morris, 2002). The fact that physical sex hasn't occurred does not necessarily mean that it is not an affair (Morris, 2002).

An assessment of the 'warning signs' (see Quiz) that indicate that an online friendship may have become an affair can help draw attention to the issue for the Internet user. In many ways, the indicators are no different from a real-life affair, except for those specific to the technology being used. The response from the faithful partner, therefore, may often revolve around restricting access to the computer using strategies such as changing passwords, cancelling the ISP or damaging the computer (Young, 2004).

By highlighting the reasons why the relationship may be seen as an affair, therapy can commence along similar lines to a real-life affair. However, the offending partner may be in denial that he or she has been unfaithful. In this situation, the therapy may need to centre on what the other partner is willing to tolerate (Morris, 2002).

If a couple wish to make amends, guidelines for rebuilding a relationship after an Internet affair may be similar to those for conventional affairs. The following guidelines have been suggested (Lamble & Morris, 2001):

For the person having the affair:

  • Admit you were wrong to yourself and your partner.
  • Cease all contact with the other person.
  • Destroy all love letters, photos and keepsakes.
  • Change your contact details.
  • Listen to your partner.
  • Answer questions openly and honestly.
  • Work out what issues you were unhappy about in your real-life relationship.
  • Decide what limits you need to set in place to keep your own behaviour in check in the future.
  • Recommit to your partner.
  • Pay attention to your partner's needs.

For the other partner:

  • Expect to grieve.
  • Make an informed choice about whether you wish to continue the relationship.
  • If you do want to stay, challenge unhelpful thinking that keeps you stuck and rehashing events.
  • Set a limit for when you will stop asking questions.
  • Resist the urge to check the computer.
  • Build your own interests.
  • Decide on what behaviour you will or won't tolerate.
  • Work out what changes you want in the relationship.

It is important for practitioners to bear in mind that the Internet can be a positive tool if used appropriately. It allows people to cheaply and easily stay in touch and allows the rapid exchange of information worldwide (Widyanto & Griffiths, 2006; Morris, 2002). Abused or intimidated partners may meet people online who empower them to leave the abusive relationship. A virtual support group environment may provide invaluable support to someone suffering from depression or social anxiety. Even though practitioners may see the time spent in this virtual support group as excessive, it may be one of few positive experiences for an inidividual (Grohol, 2005).

Professionals need to be aware of their own values and judgements regarding use of online technology. If the work of the practitioner will involve clients who are experiencing these issues, it is important to increase skills and knowledge in this area (Mitchell et al., 2005).


  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005). Household use of information technology, Australia, 2004-05. Catalogue No. 8146.0. Canberra: Author.
  • Grohol, J. (2005). Internet addiction guide. Retrieved 3 November, 2006, from
  • Lamble, J., & Morris, S. (2001). Online & personal: The reality of Internet relationships. Lane Cove, NSW: Finch Publishing.
  • Mitchell, K., Becker-Blease, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2005). Inventory of problematic Internet experiences encountered in clinincal practice. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(5), 498-509.
  • Morris, S. (2002). How is the Internet affecting our relationships? Psychotherapy in Australia, 8(3), 42-47.
  • Widyanto, L., & Griffiths, M. (2006). 'Internet addiction': A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health Addiction, 4, 31-51.
  • Young, K. (2004). Internet addiction: A new clinical phenomenon and its consequences. The American Behavioural Scientist, 48(4), 402-415.

Quiz: Warning signs that your online chatting has become an 'affair'

By Rosalie Pattenden
Clinical Practice Leader, Relationships Australia (Victoria)

  1. Looking back over the past week, have you spent more than three hours talking to your online 'friend'?
  2. Have you begun to plan for and look forward to your next communication with him/her?
  3. Does your partner know about this friend, and would you be comfortable if he/she wanted to join in?
  4. Do you 'chat' when no-one else is around?
  5. Do you make excuses to go online?
  6. Do you 'exit' the screen if someone walks into the room when you are chatting?
  7. Are you telling your online 'friend' more about your thoughts and feelings, your achievements and disappointments than your partner?
  8. Have you told your online 'friend' about problems you are having in your relationship with your partner?
  9. Are you beginning to think that your online 'friend' understands and supports you more than your partner?
  10. Are you finding that you are becoming unpredictable with how you treat your partner - sometimes very loving, and sometimes unnecessarily impatient?
  11. Are you finding that your sex life with your partner has changed since you have had this online 'friend' - either that you are having substantially more or substantially less sex with him/her?
  12. Have you considered, or actually begun to take the next step with your online friend by sending photos, talking on the phone, or meeting for coffee?

If you have answered "Yes" to five or more questions, you are crossing the line from 'online friend' to 'affair'. Are you willing to risk losing your partner and family? This is the risk you are running.

Elly Robinson is the Manager of the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. 

Treatment of young men who sexually abuse: The involvement of family

Cameron Boyd

Parents who discover that one of their children has been acting in ways that are sexually abusive face one of the most difficult issues for any family. "Families frequently react with shock, disbelief and confusion followed by intense feelings of shame, anger, guilt and depression... this is exacerbated when the victim and the abuser are living within the same family" (Thomas, 1991, p. 337 cited in Duane & Morrison, 2004, pp.105-6). This paper will focus on just one aspect of this problem: If and how families should be involved in the therapeutic treatment of young people with sexually abusive behaviour.

Does family background contribute to sexually abusive behaviour?

There is insufficient space here to explore in any depth all the research and debates about whether families of young people who sexually abuse are characterised by particular traits. In brief, some of the features thought to be common in families of young men who sexually abuse are family violence, chaotic family relationships (Carolm & Louis, 2002; Duane & Morrison, 2004; Righthand & Welch, 2004), and a range of parental problems such as drug abuse and a history of their own childhood victimisation (Duane et al., 2003). While such research suggests some possible contributing factors, it does not allow any definite conclusions to be drawn about the characteristics of families of young people who sexually abuse (Moore, Franey, & Geffner, 2004).

Durham states " is important not to pathologise families, and to remember that many families characterised by some of these problems do not have children who have committed inappropriate or harmful sexual behaviours" (Durham, 2006, p. 47). However it is equally vital not to dismiss or minimise the significance of violence in the family where this has occurred (Righthand & Welch, 2004). It should also be emphasised that some young men who sexually abuse do not have such family backgrounds.

Gender and sexual abuse

It is important to keep in mind that young men engage in sexually abusive behaviour in a gendered social and cultural context (Slattery, 2000). That is to say, there are many 'invitations' for young men to adopt abusive attitudes and practices towards women and children in their day-to-day lives. Within some male social groups a degree of sexual aggression is seen as acceptable (Epps, 2004, p.77). Some authors maintain that these cultural norms are limited to 'delinquent' peer groups, however a quick glance at any popular music video show should be enough to suggest that the influence of such values is much broader: "Negative and stereotypical attitudes towards women are commonplace among men and are not specific to sexual offenders", and similar attitudes may be common among adolescent males (Epps, 2004, pp.78-79) and not limited to or even more pronounced among those who sexually offend. Media, peer and other cultural influences appear to define some degree of objectification and aggression as a normal part of sexual behaviour.

It may not be helpful to think of families as being ensconced within four walls, unaffected by broader patterns of gender relations. Families themselves operate within this cultural milieu and may endorse or challenge traditional gender roles to varying degrees. In contrast to the research into 'dysfunctional' families, there is a well established tradition of theoretical literature suggesting that the structure of the 'traditional' nuclear family creates unequal power dynamics in relationships (see Jasinski, 2001, pp.12-13). It might follow that some young men would extend this to sexual abuse of their peers and of children.

With this in mind, the problem of sexual abuse cannot be reduced to one of dysfunctional families and pathological individuals (Allan, 2006; Costello, 2004-2005). Thus, for young men to address their sexually abusive behaviour, "it is...necessary for them to address, in a comprehensive way, their relationship with masculinity and, in particular, their relationship with some oppressive ideas or attitudes that underlay a construction of masculinity that promotes abusive behaviours" (Slattery, 2000, p.82). Rather than trying to explain young men's sexually abusive behaviour in terms of their particular family dynamics, these broader ideas about gender, power and sexuality also need to be considered.

The intent of pointing to these issues is not to attempt to excuse or minimise the actions of sexually abusive young men, but to emphasise that such behaviour is tacitly and sometimes explicitly condoned within the cultural context of many (young) people. Sexual abuse is not just a matter of pathological individuals but is a social and cultural problem that is strongly linked to gender issues.

The context of therapy: When family or family members should not be included in treatment

In the context of this paper, it is important to state clearly that there will be occasions where the involvement of some, or all, family members will not be helpful or ethical. This is especially the case when an adult (usually male) has been violent or abusive towards the young person or other family members. In some cases, adults may have coerced or 'groomed' the young person to participate in abusing others.

Australian therapist Alan Jenkins asks:

How can we respectfully address young people's experiences of disadvantage and victimisation, without sacrificing the priority of responsibility and accountability for their abusive actions? (Jenkins, 2005, p. 99)

Young men who sexually abuse need to receive clear messages that they will be held responsible for their actions. This ethic needs to be applied consistently, including to adults who have harmed the young man.

When parents are involved in treatment

The above comments notwithstanding, the involvement of family, where possible, is thought to be an important factor for effective treatment of young people (Nisbet et al., 2005). Unfortunately, families are often considered only to the extent that they are thought to be able to act protectively for the other children in the home (Duane & Morrison, 2004). While this is obviously important, there are other ways in which family can contribute to the assessment and intervention process.

Immediate response

There are two critical factors on which parents must be engaged, even where resources will not stretch to meet other intervention needs:

  1. restoring the parental functioning following the crisis of disclosure; and
  2. engaging parents in safety planning (Duane & Morrison, 2004).

The literature suggests that without these two basic areas being met, there is little chance of treatment being effective.

In many instances, the young person will be removed from the family home at the time of disclosure/discovery, especially where there are younger siblings involved (Grant et al., 2006). This involves its own set of challenges, but the family can still have an important role to play in treatment. Removal from home can lead to a profound sense of isolation and abandonment for the young person who has sexually abused. Parents can help to maintain a sense of connection and belonging through displaying their ongoing interest in the wellbeing of the young person.

There can be positive aspects to removal from the family home for the young person under some circumstances (see Grant, Thornton, & Chamarette., 2006).


Where it is appropriate, parents should be fully informed about the assessment and treatment process. Given that many of the areas discussed during the process may be considered (by parents) to be intrusive or unnecessary, a clear and transparent explanation to parents about the relevance of 'family issues' (for example, the importance of understanding any history of family violence) may help them feel more informed and thus supportive of treatment (Durham, 2006). Parents can bring their own strengths to bear on the development and progress of their child in treatment.

For some young people, it may be assessed that some aspects of the family have contributed to the development of sexually abusive behaviours. This will obviously complicate the issue of parental involvement in therapy (as discussed above). For example, a highly sexualised home environment will hinder any attempts at change by the young person. (Examples of such an environment would include where pornography is present, where individuals do not have access to privacy, or inappropriate behaviours such as prolonged kissing on the lips between siblings or between parents and children occurs). If parents do not recognise this as a problem, or they decline to make changes towards a less sexualised home environment, this needs to be addressed. (For an example of a thorough family assessment framework, see Durham, 2006; Chapter 4)


Families can contribute to the motivation of the young person to participate in treatment. Involving the family can also help to identify factors that may contribute to the maintenance of sexually abusive behaviours, and work to minimise the influence of these factors (Durham, 2006). If the support of families can be elicited in challenging the dominant messages about masculinity, sexuality and entitlement that facilitate sexual abuse, the young man can be supported in standing against these harmful ideas (Stillman, 2006), and work towards constructing an 'ethic of fairness' to inform his relationships with others (Jenkins, 2005).


If the young person continues to live at home, or continues to visit the home, during assessment and treatment, parents will inevitably play a crucial role in supervision. "Line of sight" supervision around younger children may be recommended. This is not only practically demanding - especially for single parents with limited resources and support (Allan, 2006) - it can also be emotionally difficult for parents to feel that they must constantly be suspicious of their son or daughter. Given that pornography is an unhelpful influence (Epps & Fisher, 2004), parents may also need to ensure that the young person has no access to such material in the home, especially via the Internet (Cameron, Salazar, Bernhardt et al., 2005).


Engaging with families can be important in understanding and working with young people with sexually abusive behaviours. However family factors alone are insufficient in explaining sexual abuse by young men. It is important to remain mindful of the gendered nature of sexual abuse, and families can play a powerful role in helping young men to stand against harmful, dominant ideas about masculinity. In some circumstances it will not be helpful for parents to be involved, and treatment of young people should not occur at the expense of holding adult men accountable when they have been abusive to the young person or other family members.


  • Allan, J. (2006). Whose job is poverty? The problems of therapeutic intervention with children who are sexually violent. Child Abuse Review, 15, 55-70.
  • Cameron, K., Salazar, L., Bernhardt, J., Burgess-Whitman, N., Wingood, G., & DiClemente, R. (2005). Adolescents' experience with sex on the web: Results from online focus groups. Journal of Adolescence, 28(4), 535-540.
  • Carolm, V., & Louis, V. (2002). Adolescent sex offenders: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 3(4), 247-260.
  • Costello, M. (2004-2005). The disappearing 'f' word: Feminism and Australian government violence against women policies? Women Against Violence, 17, 41-50.
  • Duane, Y., Carr, A., Cherry, J., McGrath, K., & O'Shea, D. (2003). Profiles of the parents of adolescent CSA perpetrators attending a voluntary outpatient treatment programme in Ireland. Child Abuse Review, 12(1), 5-24.
  • Duane, Y., & Morrison, T. (2004). Families of young people who sexually abuse: Characteristics, contexts and considerations. In G. O'Reilly, W. L. Marshall, A. Carr & R. Beckett (Eds.), The handbook of clinical intervention with young people who sexually abuse (pp. 103-127). Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Durham, A. (2006). Young men who have sexually abused: A case study guide. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Epps, K., & Fisher, D. (2004). A review of the research literature on young people who sexually abuse. In G. O'Reilly, W. L. Marshall, A. Carr & R. Beckett (Eds.), The handbook of clinical intervention with young people who sexually abuse (pp. 62-102). Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Grant, J., Thornton, J., & Chamarette, C. (2006). Residential placement of intra-familial adolescent sex offenders. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
  • Jenkins, A. (2005). Making it fair: Respectful and just intervention with disadvantaged young people who have abused. In M. C. Calder (Ed.), Children and young people who sexually abuse: New theory, research and practice developments (pp. 98-113). Dorset: Russell House Publishing.
  • Moore, T., Franey, K. C., & Geffner, R. (2004). Introduction: Assessment and treatment of youth who sexually offend: An overview. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 13(3/4), 1-13.
  • Nisbet, I., Rombouts, S., & Smallbone, S. (2005). Impacts of programs for adolescents who sexually offend: Literature review. Retrieved 22 August, 2006 (link updated October 2008), from HTTP://
  • Righthand, S., & Welch, C. (2004). Characteristics of youth who sexually offend. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 13(3/4), 15-32.
  • Slattery, G. (2000). Working with young men: Taking a stand against sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Dulwich Centre Journal, 1&2, 80-88.
  • Stillman, J. R. (2006). Working with adolescents who have committed sexual abuse: Establishing a new place to stand. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 32-38.
  • Thomas, J. (1991). The adolescent sex offenders family. In G. Ryan & S. Lane (Eds.), Juvenile sex offending: Causes, consequences and correction. Lexington: Lexington Books.

Cameron Boyd is a Research Officer with the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Family statistics and trends

Trends in couple dissolution

Ruth Weston and Lixia Qu

The first Family Relationships Quarterly presented an overview of Australian trends in couple formation. It was shown that the ways in which Australians form couple relationships have changed dramatically in the 20th century: marriage rates have fallen, those who marry do so at later ages, couples increasingly live together before marrying, and those who divorce are less likely to remarry. This issue of the Family Relationships Quarterly focuses on trends concerning the dissolution of marriages and cohabiting relationships.

Divorce rates

The increase in the divorce rate represents one of the most spectacular family-related trends in the 20th century. Figure 1 depicts the number of divorces across the years and the crude divorce rate, that is, the number of divorces granted in a year per 1,000 resident population.

Figure 1. Crude divorce rate and number of divorces, 1901-2005

Figure 1. Crude divorce rate and number of divorces, 1901-2005

Sources: ABS (various years) Marriages and divorces (Catalogue No. 3310.0); ABS (2006), Divorces Australia 2005 (Catalogue No. 3307.0.55.001).

  • Prior to the Second World War divorce was rare. In the first decade of the twentieth century the number of divorces recorded each year ranged from 300 to 400.
  • The crude divorce rate (number of divorces per 1,000 resident population) rose slightly in the 1920s to the mid-1940s and peaked at 1.1 in 1947. In fact, the number of divorces recorded in 1947 was the highest (8,705) during the first half of the twentieth century, partly reflecting the instability of hasty wartime marriages and the disruptive effects of the war on marriage. The rate then declined slightly until the 1960s, when it began to rise substantially.
  • The rate soared to a peak of 4.6 divorces per 1,000 resident population when the Family Law Act 1975 came into operation (5 January,1976), which allowed only one ground for divorce ("irretrievable breakdown" as measured by at least 12 months separation). This change led to the formalisation of some long-term separations and the bringing forward of some divorces that had been filed in the previous years but were not as yet finalised.
  • Since then the crude divorce rate has mostly fluctuated between 2.5 and 3.0, with a trough occurring in the mid-1980s.
  • While the crude divorce rate has remained at a high plateau since the early 1980s, the number of divorces has increased since the mid-1980s - a trend that reflects the growth in the Australian adult population.
  • Another measure of the divorce rate is the number of divorces per 1,000 married women. In the late 1980s these rates ranged between 10.6 and 10.9, and gradually increased throughout the 1990s. The rate over the past several years has fluctuated between 12.0 and 13.0 divorces per 1,000 married women.

Age-specific divorce rates, married men and women

A more detailed picture of the patterns of divorce is obtained by determining the rates of divorce for specific age groups. These data are presented in Figure 2. They show that:

  • Among women, the divorce rate is highest for those aged 25-29 years while among married men, it is highest for those aged 30-34 years - a difference that reflects the fact that women tend to marry at a younger age than men.
    • In 2001, divorce was experienced by 21 in every 1,000 married men aged 25-29 and 35-39 years, and 23 in every 1,000 married men aged 30-34 years.
    • During the same year, the number of women experiencing divorce in every 1,000 married women of the same age was 23 for those aged 25-29, just under 23 for those aged 30-34 years, and 19 for those aged 35-39 years.
  • Among married men and women in their mid-30s and older, the divorce rate declined progressively with increasing age.

Figure 2. Age-specific divorce rate by gender, 2001

Figure 2. Age-specific divorce rate by gender, 2001

Sources: ABS (2006), Divorces, Australia 2005 (Catalogue No. 3307.0.55.001).

The stability of cohabitation

While couples are increasingly likely to live together before they marry, cohabiting relationships tend to be less stable than marriages. Data from Wave 1 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey1 suggest that:

  • Only 9% of those whose cohabitation commenced in the early 1990s were still cohabiting with the same partner in 2001 (7-11 years later).
  • Only 2% of men and women who began cohabiting 10 years earlier than this (in the early 1980s) were still cohabiting with the same partner in 2001.

Figure 3 refers to five cohorts of HILDA respondents who began cohabiting in different years (from the early 1970s to the early 1990s). It shows the proportion in each cohort who married or separated within the first five years of the cohabiting union. (The percentages do not add up to 100 per cent because some couples continued to cohabit.)

  • Cohabiting relationships that commenced in the early 1970s were much more likely to end in marriage than separation (63% vs 25%).
  • Since the 1970s, cohabiting relationships became increasingly likely to end in separation than in marriage. The chance of a cohabiting couple who began living together in the early 1990s being married five years later was only slightly higher than the chance of separation (43% vs 38%).

One implication of these trends is that divorce statistics have become progressively less useful as a reflection of relationship breakdown trends.

Figure 3. Cohabiting couples: outcomes of cohabitation after 5 years

Figure 3. Cohabiting couples: outcomes of cohabitation after 5 years

Source: The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey Wave 1.

Those without partners

Together, trends in couple formation (outlined in Family Relationships Quarterly Issue 1) and relationship breakdown influence the overall proportions of men and women who are partnered or unpartnered.

Figures 4a and 4b, which are based on analyses conducted by Birrell, Rapson, and Hourigan (2004) using Census data, indicate the proportion of men and women of different ages (below 50 years) who were living without a partner in 1986, 1996 and 2001.

  • Across all five-year age groups shown (20-59 years), the proportion of unpartnered men and women increased between 1986 and 20012.
  • Given that men are usually older than women when they first cohabit or marry, unpartnered rates are considerably higher at younger ages for men than women.
  • Gender differences in unpartnered rates narrow with advancing age, and given the lower propensity for women to repartner at older ages, women in their late forties are marginally more likely to be unpartnered than men of this age.

In summary, patterns of couple dissolution have undergone a great deal of change. Although fairly stable over the past decade, the number of divorces per 1000 marriages was lower in the late 1980s than more recently. While cohabitation tends to be an unstable status, it is less likely to convert to marriage than in the past. In other words, the chance of cohabitation ending in separation has increased progressively. The trends in couple formation and dissolution have resulted in an increase in the proportion of Australian adults who are unpartnered.

Figure 4a. Proportion of men who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2001

Figure 4a. Proportion of men who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2001

Source: Based on Birrell, B., Rapson, V., & Hourigan, C. (2004). Men + women apart: Partnering in Australia. Melbourne: Australian Family Association and Centre for Population and Urban Research.

Figure 4b. Proportion of women who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2001

Figure 4b. Proportion of women who were living without a partner by age, 1986, 1996 and 2001

Source: Based on Birrell, B., Rapson, V., & Hourigan, C. (2004). Men + women apart: Partnering in Australia. Melbourne: Australian Family Association and Centre for Population and Urban Research.

References and data sources

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (various years). Marriages and divorces Australia (Catalogue No. 3310.0). Canberra: Author.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2006). Divorces Australia 2005 (Catalogue No. 3307.0.55.001). Canberra: Author.
  • Birrell, B., Rapson, V., & Hourigan, C. (2004). Men + women apart: Partnering in Australia. Melbourne: Australian Family Association and Centre for Population and Urban Research.
  • Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

Ruth Weston is General Manager (Research) and Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Lixia Qu is a Research Fellow and Demographic Trends Analyst at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Website review

Raising Children website: Resource for parents and carers

Reviewed by Ren Adams

The Raising Children website is an Australian information resource for parents, professionals and others caring for children. Launched in May 2006, the site has been developed by the Raising Children Network (RCN), a consortium consisting of the Smart Population Foundation, Murdoch Children's Research Institute and the Parenting Research Centre (formerly the Victorian Parenting Centre).

The Raising Children website offers research-based early childhood and parenting information in a highly engaging and interactive format. The site is primarily targeted at parents and carers of newborns to children of eight years, offering practical parenting information in plain English. It is also a valuable resource for health professionals and those providing family relationships services, with a dedicated section for professionals.

With sections based upon the age of the child such as newborns, babies, toddlers, preschoolers and school age children up to eight years, users can browse the 700 plus pages of the site with ease. Within each of the age-based sections there is easy-to-read information on behaviour, communication, development, health, nutrition, play & learning, safety and sleep. There is also a section for 'grown-ups' that focuses on topics such as 'Looking after Yourself', 'Family Management', 'Work & Family' and 'Dealing with Separation'.

As well as providing impartial and reliable information on parenting, the site contains links to local services and activities. One of the best features of the site are the discussion forums, enabling users to share information and discuss family and parenting issues relevant to them. Current forums include 'Baby & Child' with separate forums based upon the age of the child, 'Parents Like Me' where parents and carers can make contact with others in similar circumstances, and 'My Neighbourhood' connecting parents and carers with resources in their area.

The Raising Children Network was born as a result of the development of the National Agenda for Early Childhood ( and the subsequent Parenting Information Project (, which highlighted the need for easily accessible, up-to-date, quality-assured parenting information in Australia. The site provides this information in an easy to use and parent-friendly fashion. It also provides vital support to health professionals who are often the community's first point of call for information and advice on parenting and early childhood development.

The Raising Children Network is wholly funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA) as part of the Early Childhood - Invest to Grow initiative of the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy.

Ren Adams is a Project Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Website review

Parenting Research Centre: Resource for practitioners

Reviewed by Ren Adams

The Parenting Research Centre (PRC), formerly the Victorian Parenting Centre, changed its name and launched its new website in September 2006. The main focus of the PRC is the development of knowledge about the effects of parenting practices on children, and how best to engage and support parents in the task of raising children well.

Research conducted by the PRC is typically translated and developed into programs and resources designed to better equip and resource practitioners in working with families with children, particularly those families and children experiencing adversity. Programs developed and/or facilitated by the centre include Healthy Start - a national strategy for supporting parents of children with learning difficulties; and Signposts Statewide - a program that helps families prevent or manage difficult behaviour in children aged 3 to 15 years who have a developmental delay or intellectual disability. The centre is also a consortium member of the Raising Children Network (see article on previous page), providing the content for the Raising Children website and thereby enabling the centre to fulfill its goal of translating parenting information nationally.

Professional services offered by the PRC include training programs and consultation services. Professionals wishing to learn particular programs or further develop skills in working with families with children can attend one of the regular training sessions, the details of which are available at The Centre also provides consultancy services to agencies and practitioners in the form of research; conducting or guiding evaluation of practices, programs or initiatives; and providing clinical support to those needing assistance in resolving clinical issues in the delivery of parenting interventions.

By conducting evidence-based research on parenting practices and translating some of this into practical strategies and programs, the PRC is a valuable resource for Australian child and family practitioners. Visit the PRC at

Ren Adams is Project Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. 

Literature highlights

Compiled by Joan Kelleher, Librarian

Literature highlights provides a summary of a selection of resources from the Institute library. Where available, links to resources are provided. Other resources are available via the inter-library system - please contact your local library for details.

Culturally diverse family services

Cultivating culture (2000). Fraser, S. Consumer Rights Journal, 4(4), 7-10

Kildonan Child and Family Services, with its Lalor office in the City of Whittlesea, has recently developed two new services: financial counselling and community development responses to problem gambling and works with people from non English speaking backgrounds; and a financial counselling service for people who have experienced family violence. This article focuses on delivering these services to the Macedonian people in this area, discussing issues of culture; bilingual workers; the financial counselling needs of Macedonian people; and extending understanding of cultural differences, particularly for women seeking help in family violence situations.

Cultural challenges for violence prevention: working towards an ethical practice of sustainable interventions (2002). Braaf, R., & Ganguly, G. In Expanding Our Horizons: Understanding the Complexities of Violence Against Women - International Conference, February 2002, University of Sydney - Conference papers. Kensington, NSW: Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse, University of New South Wales.

The authors note that, despite the broadening of understandings and prevention practice, women from diverse cultural groups continue to suffer violence with little or no criminal justice intervention, health and counselling support, or social and community supports. In this paper, issues arising from prevention work which seeks to address (conflicting) goals of bridging cultural difference, celebrating cultural diversity and ensuring cultural sustainability are addressed, and implications for women from diverse cultural groups are considered. The paper draws on examples of prevention practice in NSW to explore these issues. An argument is made for consideration of ethical dimensions of practice in order to inform prevention's engagement with cultural issues; that is, the authors explain, to work towards appropriate and effective prevention strategies, which support women from diverse cultural groups to create futures free of violence.

Family and child counsellors working with Aboriginal families (2000). Ralph, S. In P. Dudgeon, D. Garvey & H. Pickett (Eds.), Working with Indigenous Australians: A handbook for psychologists (pp. 209-216). Perth, WA: Gunada Press, Curtin Indigenous Research Centre, Curtin University of Technology.

Sharing his insights gained from working as Director of Family Court Counselling in Alice Springs in 1996, the author of this paper discusses the following issues: Aboriginality and ways of bridging two cultures; the sociocultural context; the counselling interview; asking questions; speaking and listening; sign language; seating arrangements; respect for culture and customary law; and conflict resolution.

Family business: whose business is it? (2000). Robinson-Sabath, M. Threshold, 65, 22-25

This is an extract from a report published by Bethany Family Support in 1997, following a community development project which was undertaken with the aim of developing linkages between people from diverse cultural and language backgrounds, and the agency's family education programs. The project sought to stimulate discussion around the challenge of offering relationship education, not just marriage education, in response to the diversity of family structures and relationship choices evident within contemporary Australian culture. Noting that promoting participation in relationship education programs is a multifaceted endeavour, the article first provides a brief canvassing of frameworks used in understanding and intervening in these many facets in order to make family business the business of us all. Discussion includes access and equity principles, adult education principles, and principles of community readiness. The project approach is then explained; impressions of readiness discussed in relation to non English speaking background; the implementation strategy is outlined; limitations and issues identified by the project are set out; and project outcomes are discussed.

The I do's and don'ts of intercultural marriage (2005). Kahlenberg, R. R. Threshold, 84, 11-13

Spouses in intercultural marriages can be faced with additional challenges in their relationship that derive from cultural differences. This article discusses some aspects of intercultural marriages, and offers suggestions for dealing with specific difficulties arising from differing cultural attitudes towards child rearing, in laws, religion, and other issues.

Indigenous family consultants at the Family Court of Australia (2006). Akee, J. In B. Smyth, N. Richardson & G. Soriano (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Forum on Family Relationships in Transition: Legislative, practical and policy responses: 1-2 December 2005 (pp. 258-261). Melbourne, Vic: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Mistrust of the Australian system, the government and the courts is not uncommon among Indigenous people and is one important barrier to accessing the family law system. The low number of Indigenous family law workers makes access more difficult. The author of this paper shares her experience working as an Indigenous Family Consultant in Cairns, explaining the ways she tries to make the family law system accessible to Indigenous people.

Inspiration across cultures: reflecting teams among the Metis in Canada (2001). Lowenberg, C. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 22(1), 25-27

Metis Community Services on Vancouver Island exists to serve the Metis, one of Canada's three aboriginal peoples. The author went there, hoping for an exchange of thoughts and ideas that she could apply to her work back home in Sweden and was welcomed to observe and participate in the work. She was asked to share some of her experiences which resulted in a workshop about how to apply the reflecting team mode of working when counselling aboriginal families. The outcome of the exchange was a blend of the ethics and rules of behaviour among aboriginal people and the Scandinavian reflecting team mode of working. (Journal abstract, edited)

Journey of resilience and adaptation: counselling Vietnamese people (2002). Hart, J. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 23(1), 20-28

Despite the substantial number of Vietnamese residing in Australia, many Australians' knowledge and attitudes are still shaped by the Vietnam War and the resulting exodus of refugees. This superficial impression contributes little to a meaningful understanding of the rich heritage of the Vietnamese people. The purpose of this article is to broaden the understanding of helping professionals who come into contact with Vietnamese Australians, so as to evoke responses that are more sensitive, appropriate and useful. A brief history of Vietnam is followed by an exploration of historical insights and cultural variables that aid our understanding of the people, and by an examination of the applicability of these factors for counselling. (Journal abstract)

Language, spirituality and cultural empathy: A response to Justin Hart (2002). Hoang, L. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 23(1), 29-31

In an article of this issue of the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, the author responds to an article by Justin Hart in which he aimed to provide counselling professionals with a background history of Vietnam and an understanding of Vietnamese cultural flavours. The author focuses on sharing his own experiences as a counsellor, some of which support Hart's position, others of which bring out different aspects of therapeutic relevance to the points made in his article. Although Hart called for displaying empathy as part of relationship development, the author found it useful to attend to cultural empathy, which requires tuning very specifically to cultural variables in individual cases and for which he provides two examples.

Primary preventative intervention in a modern and diverse society (2002). Mesuraco, B. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 23(1), 33-37

The realisation that cultural contexts were impeding access to services for many disadvantaged families and hindering the disclosure of child sexual abuse prompted two agencies to organise collaborative primary prevention strategies. Family groups were convened from the local Cambodian, Vietnamese, Latin American and Arabic-speaking communities. Focus groups were attended by one or more members of each family. Participants contributed to the formation of a collective understanding that could then be adapted and passed on to other families in their communities. It was observed that once individual families entered this process, isolation diminished and steps towards exploration of the issues could be taken. This paper outlines a process through which family therapists can use primary prevention strategies to reach NESB groups. (Journal abstract)

Towards developing a family therapy for Melanesia (2004). Orathinkal, J., & Vansteenwegen, A. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 25(3), 148-154

Our principal objective is to call attention, primarily of Australian-New Zealand family therapists, to the relevance and the urgency of developing, promoting and providing family and/or couple therapy in the Melanesian context. We emphasise the need to take into consideration Melanesian worldviews, values and social systems. We discuss a traditional 'mediation reconciliation ritual' model of solving family or couple conflicts, and also point to some of the immediate situations in which a family therapist could intervene. A few recommendations are also made for how the academic context could be utilised to develop Melanesian family therapy. (Journal abstract)

Working cross culturally (2001). Wigzell, C. Relatewell, 5(3), 5-7

Requirements of multicultural awareness are itemised in this article which defines culture and outlines the challenges parent educators may face in inter-cultural interactions, discussing issues of: overcoming personal ethnocentric attitudes; understanding attribution; cross cultural communication; presenting parenting education to culturally and linguistically diverse audiences; and culturally and linguistically diverse communities and family issues.

Working therapeutically with Aboriginal families (2000). McKelvie, G., & Mallard, J. In P. Dudgeon, D. Garvey & H. Pickett (Eds.), Working with Indigenous Australians: A handbook for psychologists (pp. 127-136). Perth, WA: Gunada Press, Curtin Indigenous Research Centre, Curtin University of Technology.

The purpose of this paper is to explore and describe ways in which practitioners can work therapeutically, either from an individual basis with Aboriginal families or in collaboration with other Aboriginal health practitioners. Issues discussed include: the Western concept of the family; the concept of the Aboriginal family and Aboriginal kinship systems; family functions from generic as well as Aboriginal perspectives; the role of the practitioner in utilising the Aboriginal family within the mental health context; Aboriginal approaches to working with Aboriginal families; culturally appropriate family counselling; and confidentiality issues. The Aboriginal Family Futures Program in WA is described.

Working with CALD families: Learning from the experience (2005). Young, S. Synergy: Newsletter of the Australian Transcultural Mental Health Network, 2, 6-7.

Key themes to be aware of when working with culturally and linguistically diverse families in mental health services are discussed in this article. These issues include: strengthening of family ties; children; the meaning of language; the importance of homeland; communication with other family members; post traumatic stress; cultural understanding of mental health; spirituality; generational attitudes to assimilation and the culture of origin; and family and cultural life.

Assuming the centrality of culture and gender in the provision of services to culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) client groups, this paper argues that effective cross cultural practices rely on the practitioner's position of 'informed not knowing'. The paper discusses various theoretical approaches to cross cultural practice, and issues for male and female practitioners working with men. It describes a framework for cross cultural practice with men from CALD backgrounds.


1 The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.  This survey is being conducted by a consortium of three research bodies, with the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research being the lead agency.  The other consortium members are the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Australian Council for Educational Research.

2 Note: while the increase in the unpartnered rates between 1986 and 1996 is greater than the increase that occurred between the 1996 and 2001, it must be remembered that the first two periods span ten years, while the second and third periods span five years. 

Publication details

AFRC Newsletter
No. 2
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, December 2006.
18 pp.

Publication meta

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