The 2011 census shows an increase in the number of women living in common-law relationships, and that may have helped contribute to a drop in divorces among Canadians under age 50, according to Statistics Canada.

Data from the 2011 Household Survey shows 11 per cent of Canadian women lived with a common-law partner, up from 3.8 per cent in 1981. The survey was done among 14 million Canadian women aged 15 and older. 

While common-law unions are associated with a younger demographic, the number of such arrangements among older women has been increasing rapidly.

The study released Tuesday focuses on the living arrangements of women.

Among women 50 to 54, only 1.7 per cent of were part of a common-law union in 1981, but by 2011, that proportion rose to 11 per cent.

About half the women in this age group who were common-law partners were divorced or separated from a previous marriage.

But the trend to trying out life with a partner outside of marriage may be contributing to a lower rate of divorce among younger Canadians, Statistics Canada said.

Fewer divorces in younger women

Over the past 30 years, since it has become easier to divorce, the share of women who were divorced or separated more than doubled, from 5.9 per cent in 1981 to 13 per cent in 2011.

Among women 50 to 59, 21 per cent have been divorced or separated at some point in their lives, often at a younger age.

But among younger women, the divorce rate is much lower – 12 per cent among women 35 to 39, compared to 16 per cent in 1991 and seven per cent among women 30 to 34, down from 12 per cent in 1991.

"Among the reasons for a lower proportion of the population under age 50 that was divorced or separated include a decreasing proportion of legally married young adults and an increasing proportion of the never-married population, many of whom choose to form common-law unions," Statistics Canada wrote in its analysis.

Common-law unions were more prevalent in Quebec, at 21 per cent of relationships, and among aboriginal people.

The study also found 45 per cent of women over 15 lived with their married spouse in 2011, compared to 56 per cent in 1981.

About 13 per cent of the women surveyed lived in lone-mother families.