Relationships within the family
Families in Australia Survey report
Jennifer Baxter, Diana Warren
Family relationships play an important role in the wellbeing of individuals. These relationships are the focus of this short snapshot report, using data captured at May-June 2021 in the third Families in Australia Survey. The focus of this snapshot is on relationship satisfaction and quality, providing a broad overview of findings from the perspective of individuals reporting on different family relationships.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were ongoing at the time of this data collection, although varying across Australia during the weeks of data collection for this third Families in Australia survey. Survey respondents' evaluations of and comments about their family relationships reflect this context. The pandemic is relevant to family relationships, with the pandemic meaning some family members are living in closer quarters than usual, with restrictions on leaving the home and home-based working and schooling. Others are experiencing a greater distance from family members, given travel restrictions and border closures.
Relationship satisfaction and quality may also be affected by changes to employment, financial circumstances and individual wellbeing. Some of these issues emerge in the findings presented in this snapshot.
The partner or spouse relationship is a key one for many Australians. The great majority of respondents were very satisfied or satisfied with their relationship with their spouse or partner (82%), with satisfaction highest among older respondents.
Couples living apart were somewhat less satisfied with their relationship than those living together, with some of this related to the constraints and barriers contributing to their living arrangements. Barriers included restrictions and border closures that kept some couples apart.
Parents mostly reported positively on the quality of the relationship with co-resident children and on how well children get along. Some had more difficulties with these relationships, sometimes related to particular child or family characteristics.
When reporting on the household more broadly, and levels of conflict and how everyone gets along, most indicated their situation was positive, with one in 10 saying there was 'quite a bit' or 'a great deal' of conflict in the household and about one in 5 saying there was some conflict. Most said there was a little (46%) or none (25%).
Respondents living with a parent or other relative were more likely to rate the household relationships as 'fair', 'poor' or 'very poor' (42%) and more likely to experience conflict (52%) reporting 'some', 'quite a bit' or 'a great deal'.
Relationship with spouse or partner
Many Australian adults are in a couple relationship, either cohabiting or married, so we begin by reporting on this relationship. At 2016, for example, 48% of Australians aged 15 years and over were in a registered marriage and 10% were cohabiting, leaving 42% neither married nor cohabiting.1 In the Families in Australia survey, in May-June 2021, 60% were living with a spouse or partner (married or cohabiting), with another 6% saying they had a spouse or partner who sometimes or always lived elsewhere. Another 32% in Families in Australia said they did not have a spouse or partner and 3% selected 'other', with many of these self-reporting in the free-text box being widowed or separated.2
As a measure of relationship quality for those with a spouse or partner, the survey asked respondents to indicate how satisfied or dissatisfied they were with their couple relationship. Responses indicate that levels of relationship satisfaction are quite high, with almost half of respondents saying they were very satisfied with this relationship. Overall, 48% were very satisfied, 34% satisfied, 8% neither satisfied or dissatisfied and 10% dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
Positive aspects of this relationship were reported by many respondents when asked if they wanted to provide more information about their relationships.
Close, supportive, satisfying and fulfilling. The months of COVID restrictions both helped and challenged us. This relationship is the most meaningful and important one in my life and I am truly fortunate and blessed to have it.
We have a strong relationship because it's based on a foundation of support for one another, as well as shared values and plans for the future. We both value having friendships and support networks outside the relationship as well as within it. Overall, we enjoy each other's company, make each other laugh, and are each other's cheerleaders for working towards the goals that we each want to achieve.
My partner and I have shared family values that provide the glue for our relationship. I wouldn't be able to care for my family in this way without his positive support. He doesn't just tolerate my family, he actively welcomes and cares for them.
Levels of satisfaction with a partner or spouse relationship were highest among older respondents (Figure 1), with around half of respondents in their fifties and sixties and almost two-thirds (63%) of those aged 70 or older saying they were very satisfied with their relationship, compared to 40% of those under 30 (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Satisfaction with relationship with spouse or partner, by age group, May-June 2021
Note: Estimates not reliable for the dissatisfied and neutral categories for the 18-29 age group (cell count <20).
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 3,495
Some of these positive feelings among those in long-term relationships, including older people, were apparent among Families in Australia respondents:
We have maintained our relationship and have been living together for 21 years. We have different opinions on many things, and many things in common - but the core is based on mutual love and respect of and for each other.
We've been together 51 years, no point in fighting now, she's my soulmate for sure.
Fifty-four years of marriage has taught us a lot about interpersonal relationships, tolerance, understanding and patience. We have been through a lot but have built a great relationship.
We have been together for 30 years, raised two great kids, and got married three years ago when marriage equality laws changed. Have never been happier.
Younger peoples' comments also include positive reflections about their couple relationship, although the challenges of parenthood, domestic arrangements and busy lifestyles also come through.
Overall, I feel our relationship is very good. Nothing's ever perfect but we talk about our issues and work on them together.
Parenting a toddler can be quite challenging at times but we mostly get along well.
We get along great and I am very satisfied in the relationship, except that I do more than my share of the housework, which I find hard to change despite trying.
Respondents who had a spouse or partner were also asked about various aspects of that relationship (Figure 2):
- Most agreed (39%) or strongly agreed (40%) that they often have meaningful conversations.
- Half strongly agreed (49%) that they have a close relationship, and a further 34% agreed.
- 57% strongly agreed and 32% agreed that they supported each other through difficult times.
- 40% disagreed and 25% strongly disagreed that they argue quite a lot.
Figure2: Aspects of relationship with spouse or partner, May-June 2021
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 3,262
These comments by respondents highlight some of the positive, supportive relationships:
We support each other. We share tasks. We have funny quirks but we get on.
We have been married for 56 years and of course have had disagreements along the way but nothing major or serious and we enjoy a close calm relationship with lots of shared interests but also each has our own separate interests.
My partner is a great support for the whole family and extended family.
My husband is extremely supportive of me and always attends significant medical appointments with me, even driving me to the city for investigations and specialist appointments. He's very thoughtful and always buys good food that he thinks I will enjoy. He always fixes things that are broken and helps me with tasks I can't manage. He often cooks and provides healthy tasty meals. He encourages me to go on walks with him when I'm up to it. He loves caring for our family including two step-children and all our grandchildren.
The findings for frequent arguments, in Figure 2, show that arguments are not commonplace in most relationships. However, 16% either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement 'we argue quite a lot'. This is not necessarily indicative of a problematic relationship, with the free-text responses suggesting some couples incorporate disagreement into their relationships as a positive element, such that disagreements on issues are separate from their personal connection to each other.
My partner and I are both strong willed and we love a good disagreement so often argue about different social issues or political happenings. It is not personal and is actually something we both enjoy.
Relationship's generally good - when things get tough we are there for each other. Sometimes we argue about chores and logistics but that is mainly because of lack of time. Otherwise, it's because our children are not listening to us.
We hold different views and have discussions about them. Verbal arguments are regular. But we also come to either an agreement or agree to disagree. Or even finish up with a good laugh.
Of course, arguments can be indicative of a strained relationship, and this is apparent in some of the free-text responses, along with other indicators of relationships under pressure, with comments reflecting on the impacts of COVID, added strains of parenting, being time poor or managing work stresses, and financial and/or health challenges.
As would be expected, respondents who said that they have meaningful conversations, have a close relationship and support each other through difficult times and do not have frequent arguments more commonly reported high levels of satisfaction with their relationship with their spouse or partner (Figure 3).
- Among those who agreed that they have meaningful conversations, 92% reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their relationship with their spouse, compared to 16% of those who disagreed with this statement.
- Of those who agreed with the statement 'we have a close relationship', 93% reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their relationship with their partner, compared to only 2% of those who disagreed with that statement.
- Among those who agreed with the statement 'we support each other through difficult times', 89% were satisfied or very satisfied with their relationship, compared to 2% of those who disagreed with the statement.
- Among those who agreed with the statement 'we argue quite a lot', almost half reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their relationship, while the proportion satisfied was considerably higher (92%) for those who disagreed with this statement.
Figure 3: Proportion satisfied (or very satisfied) with their relationship with spouse or partner, by relationship qualities, May-June 2021
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 3,262
2 Statistics have been calculated using post-stratification weights (based on age group, gender, state, education and whether the respondent speaks a language other than English) to compensate for some bias resulting from over-representation of respondents with certain socio-demographic characteristics. However, the Families in Australia Survey is a non-probability sample and, as such, it is not representative of the Australian population.
Couple relationships when partners do not co-reside
Almost all of those in a couple relationship are living with their spouse or partner. However, there is a significant proportion who are in a couple relationship but are not residing full-time with their partner. Reimondos, Evans, and Gray (2011) estimated that 9% of people aged 18 years and over were in a non-cohabiting union, based on analysis of Wave 5 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. In the Families in Australia Survey, 60% were living full-time with their spouse or partner and another 6% had a spouse or partner they lived apart from some or all of the time.
There are a number of possible explanations for having a non-cohabiting partner, some related to constraints (e.g. distance, lack of financial resources to move in together, one of the couple being in jail, or in hospital or aged care) and some related to individuals' preferences for autonomy and independence (see Reimondos et al., 2011). We heard something of these explanations when we asked respondents to tell us if we hadn't completely captured their family situation.
My partner has his own house but shares mine from time to time as I do his but basically, we are independent of each other financially.
My partner lives interstate, so while our relationship is great, the distance is hard especially with lockdowns.
My partner lives overseas and we have not been able to see each other through the pandemic, which was acceptable for the first 12 months, however is getting frustrating now.
In particular, and as noted in the quote above, the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected relationship formation and co-residence decisions or opportunities. For some, the pandemic may have led to a decision to co-reside, while for others, border closures or concerns about health may have led to remaining apart.
My husband cannot enter Australia as he is not a citizen and there are very few flights to enter the country. We have not seen each other in 15 months and there is no end in sight.
Reports about changes to living arrangements, which we asked about in the first two Families in Australia surveys in 2020, also showed some of these impacts.
We live separately and that seems to work quite well. We are not looking to get married and neither of us will give up our homes, lol.
Figure 4 shows that, compared to satisfaction levels among those who were living with their spouse or partner, satisfaction levels were lower among those who did not live with their partner or lived together some of the time. Among those who lived with their partner all the time, almost half (49%) reported very high levels of relationship satisfaction, compared to around one in three (35%) respondents who did not live with their partner all the time. Open-text responses, such as those presented above, showed that for some couples living apart, lower levels of satisfaction were due to them being apart as a result of COVID restrictions, while for others, there is satisfaction in the relationship that involves a living apart arrangement.
Figure 4: Satisfaction with relationship with spouse or partner, May-June 2021
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 3,262 (live together), 243 (do not live together or live together sometimes)
Another important relationship within families is that between parent and child. Thinking first about this relationship from the perspective of parents, 50% of those with resident children reported being very satisfied with the relationship with these children and a further 36% said that they were satisfied (Figure 5). Satisfaction was especially high for those with children aged 0-2 years. There was more dissatisfaction for those whose youngest child had reached their teens and was aged 13-17 years - although most with children in that age group are satisfied or very satisfied.
Figure 5: Parents' satisfaction with their relationship with resident children, by age of youngest resident child, May-June 2021
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 2,373
Overall, I am extremely happy with the relationship I currently have with my children. I see them regularly for extended periods and my current work arrangements are accommodating of that. My work was also supportive of me going part-time or taking extended periods of leave to look after them. From time to time I feel like I can't make the time I ought to make for them, which tends to happen around peak periods of work and study.
Conflict is mainly between myself and my 18-year-old son who is looking for work and dependent on me for money.
My adult daughter and I are good friends and companions. We have very little conflict and can usually resolve anything that arises through discussion.
My teenager and partner are clashing badly at the moment. They both want me on their side and it is extremely draining and exhausting for me.
When the family includes multiple children, another factor contributing to family dynamics is how well those children get along. Respondents with two or more resident children under 18 were asked about their satisfaction with how the children in the household get along with each other. The majority said that they were satisfied or very satisfied. More dissatisfaction was apparent in families that included children aged 10-17 years, compared to those families with only younger children (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Satisfaction with how the (resident) children get along with each other, by child ages, households with children aged under 18 years, May-June 2021
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 1,015
Comments about children getting along indicated a great deal of diversity of experiences.
Very lucky, we all get on fine. 14- and 16-year-old sisters get along as best as I could hope for at that age!
The open-text responses showed that parents often considered siblings' relationships were as to be expected, although some parents commented on the added strains associated with children's particular behavioural or health-related conditions.
Teenagers are often at each other like cat and dog. Although during lockdown, surprisingly, their relationship improved, probably because they don't have easy access to their friends.
My teenager often gets annoyed and short in patience with my toddler ... this is something that I am helping my teen with.
Our sons are at an age where they are constantly testing each other. This is frustrating at times but within the bounds of what I would consider natural sibling rivalry.
We have two teenage girls and a pre-teen boy, and a boy with ADHD, so its exciting times with many heated discussions in our household!
Our children do not get on very well, most of the time. This is largely, I believe, due to our seven year old who has Autism, and who can be very rigid, and demanding of his brothers. Interactions with our seven year old can become heated quite quickly. His behaviours and mannerisms can cause additional conflict, and the behaviours of his brothers can cause him sensory discomfort.
One of my children has a big temper and causes conflict in the family every day, usually several times a day. It's extremely challenging for all of us and exhausting.
Respondents living with a parent
Thinking about the parent-child relationship from the other perspective, some Families in Australia respondents were living with one or both of their parents. Most of these were young people living at home with their parents - the average age of respondents who were living with a parent was 28, and most (86%) were under 40. The older respondents, though, were much more likely than the younger respondents to provide qualitative information about this co-residential arrangement, with a number referring to a parent or parents living with them, sometimes to fulfil a caring role for that parent. Some strains were apparent in comments about these co-residential arrangements.
I have to live with my father so I can save up to buy a house. He is not pleasant to live with and has a different personality from mine, so we clash.
Conflict in the household is because I have three children, two of them being twins. They fight against each other a lot, plus I have my mother living with us and she doesn't always agree with some of my parenting decisions so there is minor conflict between her and I sometimes.
I feel I hide some of myself because my father lives with us now. My son has made comments about missing it just being us two. My father is different generation with some challenging views, beliefs, and interpersonal skills.
Almost a quarter (23%) of these respondents living with a parent said they were very satisfied with their relationship with this parent, and 33% said that they were satisfied. However, almost one in five (19%) rated their satisfaction with the relationship as neutral, and 25% reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
3 The question asked about relationship with parents or parents-in-law that you live with, as some couples are living with the parents of their partner. For simplicity, we report it here as 'parents' as this is likely to be the main situation covered.
Conflict among household members
Putting all the possible household relationships together, there is some potential for conflict within the household in all but single-person households. Families in Australia respondents were asked about the level of conflict in their household and their ability to get along with other household members. Most reported that their ability to get along was good (34%) or very good (50%), with only 3% reporting it to be poor or very poor and 14% fair.
Respondents were also asked about the amount of conflict in the household. One in 10 said there was 'quite a bit' or 'a great deal' of conflict in the household and about one in five said there was some conflict. Most said there was a little (46%) or none (25%).
If responses are compared across different household types, defined by who else other than the respondent lives in the household, there are some different patterns of responses (see Figure 7 for 'getting along' and Figure 8 for 'conflict'). Compared to those living in other household types, those who seemed to have some more challenges getting along were those in which the respondent was living with parents or other adult relatives (and who was not also living with a partner or children). Respondents in these households less commonly rated their ability to get along with one another as 'very good' and more commonly reported at least some conflict in the household.
Figure 7: Ability for household members to get along with one another, May-June 2021
Note: There are many different family combinations, and this classification simplifies the many different compositions. 'With children' means children aged under 18 years live in the household, while 'With older children' means that there are no children under 18 years but the respondent has their own children aged 18 years or older living in the household.
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 4,089
Figure 8: Amount of conflict in the household, by household type, May-June 2021
Source: Families in Australia Survey 3, weighted. N = 4,091
Parents' relationships with each other after separation
Families, of course, reach across other households as well. One example of this is where parents are not living together, such as in the case of parents who have separated due to a relationship breakup.
Families in Australia respondents who have children who also have a parent living elsewhere (N = 370) were asked how they would best describe their own current relationship with the other parent: 14% selected 'friendly'; 20% selected 'co-operative'; 26% selected 'distant'; 32% selected 'lots of conflict'; and 9% selected 'fearful'.
In answering this, respondents were asked to choose the description that best fit their relationship, but the open-text comments that followed highlighted the complexities in many of these relationships, with the nature of that relationship often changing over time.
These responses are somewhat more negative than reports of parents in previously published research by AIFS on separated families (e.g. Kaspiew et al., 2015), with Families in Australia participants being less likely to indicate their relationship is 'friendly' and more likely to indicate their relationship has 'lots of conflict'. This may reflect the different characteristics and contexts of the Families in Australia Survey participants compared to those participating in other AIFS research on separated families.
Currently it is cooperative and has been reasonably stable but it still tends to fluctuate. At the beginning there was very serious conflict, emotional abuse, family violence and other things I will never forgive nor forget but for the sake of the kids I turn the other cheek and just try and get on with things. Things only started to improve once there were court orders in place.
Previously relationship with other parent was toxic … at least now we communicate for the benefit of the children.
When contact is more regular with parent living elsewhere it can create some conflict. Less contact is better.
The other (divorced) parent has a clinically diagnosed personality disorder and continues to be extremely abusive towards us all despite separating over nine years ago. It is extremely exhausting (emotionally and financially) having one of these people in your life.
Final remarks about relationships
The survey provided the opportunity for respondents to comment about their family or household relationship, and selected responses have been presented above to illustrate findings from the survey questions.
In responding to this question, some made specific remarks related to COVID, such as being impacted by lockdowns and restrictions. For example:
I met my partner at the end of lockdown 2. I've found the shared experience has really allowed for open and honest conversations, particularly around mental health.
Our family is very close, including our daughter who lives overseas. The emotional toll of not knowing when we will see her is having a huge impact on the mental health of us all.
Due to COVID-19 my other son is unable to come from the UK to attend a wake for my eldest son, who had lived with me and we were supporting each other ... I rely on my partner who is my only form of emotional support, as I am hers.
The conflicts recently have been due to the fact that my wife is frustrated that she cannot travel to support her mum or bring her to Australia. The frustration and anxiety has been getting to both of us as we both have lost close and extended family members in the past 15 months and have been unable to travel.
Not being allowed to leave the country to see my family or them being allowed to come here has been a huge stress on our relationship. We have argued about how unhappy I have been (my partner thought for a long time I was being dramatic). My relationship has suffered but the longer this goes on my husband is starting to understand how much it is affecting me.
But the pandemic was only one of a number of contextual factors affecting or central to these relationships. Other comments referred to relationships in the context of physical and mental health and caring responsibilities, the division of household chores, financial stress and, for some, having experienced family violence.
For example, in relation to the challenges of managing families with mental health issues or other health issues and caring responsibilities:
Living with a person with mental health difficulties is extremely stressful and a great deal of mutual support is necessary. This is sometimes difficult to achieve while trying to live a normal life.
We have two neurodiverse people in our household and two neurotypical people so it can be interesting at times.
My husband and I have a strong relationship, loving and comfortable. Our son has mental health problems, and we hope he will get through it with our love and support. Not really much help from anyone else.
A child has an eating disorder, so there are many arguments about food, exercise and ongoing medical treatment. This illness has had a major impact on our household and relationships.
My husband's terminal illness combined with my working really hard and our son's teenage years plus caring for my elderly frail mum can be a handful at times.
We have a child with a disability, so quite a lot of the conflict in the home relates to him, and his perception of what is happening. It can be extremely draining on the rest of the family.
Respondents also mentioned dissatisfaction or frustration with how household tasks are shared as contributing to conflict and arguments in the household (see also Baxter, 2021).
Most conflict is due to how much time I spend away from the home due to shift work and coming home exhausted to find teenager not having completed simple set chores, then having to do them myself.
Female, 52 years
Since partner is home more, earning less and not picking up extra chores things are tense and we are tiptoeing around each other avoiding arguments.
Female, 59 years
We get along great and I am very satisfied in the relationship, except that I do more than my share of the housework, which I find hard to change despite trying.
Further, financial concerns were central to some of the other comments about family relationships (see also Baxter & Warren, 2021).
Financial stress creates emotional stress creates arguments.
Male, 65 years
Since COVID my husband and I have fought a lot more mainly about finances, and feeling burnt out. But I also think that COVID restrictions and the fact that it is difficult to plan getaways or fun days because they often end up getting cancelled makes life feel all work and no play.
I have often thought of ceasing the relationship but feel trapped due to my son's disability/need for support. I would not be able to continue working my current hours if I was to separate - placing financial strain. I then couldn't continue to provide the supports my son needs.
Family relationships are varied and complex. This snapshot has focused largely on the relationships between family members within a household, with most respondents reporting positively on these relationships. The data show evidence of many supportive and strong relationships. Of course, some families experience conflict, and some are not satisfied with some or all of their relationships. Particular family experiences can impact these relationships, and the analysis of the qualitative data here highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic, and associated lockdowns and restrictions, is only one of a number of factors that matter in this regard.
- Baxter, J. (2021). Sharing of housework in couple families in 2020 (Families in Australia Survey: Towards COVID normal. Report no. 5). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Baxter, J., & Warren, D. (2021). Families' concerns about finances (Families in Australia Survey 3: Report no. 1). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Kaspiew, R., Carson, R., Dunstan, J., De Maio, J., Moore, S., Moloney, L. et al. (2015). Experiences of Separated Parents Study (Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Reimondos, A., Evans, A., & Gray, E. (2011). Living-apart-together (LAT) relationships in Australia. Family Matters, 87, 43-55.
About the Families in Australia Survey
The Families in Australia Survey is AIFS' flagship survey series. Its scope is every person in every type of family, with the survey open to Australians aged 18 years and over.
Families in Australia seeks to find out how families are managing, about relationships, connections and support, as well as about the things families do together or in the community, such as work and study. This survey is not representative of the Australian population, but nevertheless provides useful insights on aspects of Australian families. Further research using the Families in Australia Survey will explore these and other family relationship data as well as other issues for families, in more depth.
Families in Australia Survey 3 ran from 19 May to 30 June 2021, with 5,985 participants. Of these, about 4,000 responded to the questions about their relationships, with smaller numbers reporting about the partner relationship or the parent-child relationship, given varied family circumstances.
The first survey in the series was Life during COVID-19, which ran from 1 May to 9 June 2020. The second Families in Australia Survey, Towards COVID Normal ran from 17 November to 22 December 2020.
Authors: Jennifer Baxter and Diana Warren
Editor: Katharine Day
Graphic design: Lisa Carroll
Featured image: © GettyImages/DGLimages
Baxter, J., & Warren, D. (2021). Relationships within the family. (Families in Australia Survey report). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.