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It could be described as a depressing portrait of a modern relationship: a career-driven couple meet later in life, have a whirlwind romance and settle down quickly to have children. Then things start to go wrong.

This is the picture painted by research carried out by the parenting website Netmums, which found that modern relationships are most likely to break down after just three years due to the stresses of late parenthood.

Relationship specialists immediately pointed to a growing trend for “fast forward” partnerships as couples leave it later in life to get together – but spend less time getting to know each other before moving in together and having children. One in 20 couples polled admitted they were expecting a baby within three months of getting together and 15 per cent within a year.

Consequently, the study of 1,500 people found that couples are now four and a half times more likely to split up after three years – earlier than the “seven year itch” traditionally cited as the danger point in a relationship. More than 20 per cent of couples who split saw their relationship fall apart between two and four years, while only 3 per cent broke up seven years in.

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that women now delay having children until they are nearly 30. The average age of women giving birth in England and Wales is now a year older than it was a decade ago (29.5 in 2010 compared with 28.5 in 2000).

The figures also suggest an increase in the number of parents who are living together, as the number of those who are married or in civil partnerships continues to fall. The proportion of births to couples who are married or in civil partnerships was 53 per cent in 2010, compared with 61 per cent in 2000, and 88 per cent in 1980.

But births registered by parents who appeared to be cohabiting – by jointly registering the baby and giving the same address – has risen, reaching 31 per cent of all births in 2010, compared with 25 per cent in 2000.

Penny Mansfield, director of One Plus One, the relationships charity, said: “This poll supports what we know of the changing social patterns that we see all around us. People are not marrying in the numbers that they did but they are forming partnerships and having children.

“People may have a series of relationships and then get to a certain age and then think: ‘Oh we should have children’ without necessarily having made more of a commitment. When you get this more informal approach to relationships – particularly when you have children – relationships are much more unstable.

“People also now have much higher expectations of relationships. So when people hit difficulties, often when they become parents, they think: “Things aren’t what they were’.”

Two out of five parents responding to the poll reported that they were so short of time and money that they could only go out as a couple “two or three” times a year. Fifteen per cent said they “never” went out as a couple anymore, while 14 per cent only had a single night a year together. Only one in 100 parents now spends quality time together a few nights a week.

Leila Collins, a counselling psychologist and lecturer at Middesex University, said: “There’s a great deal of pressure on women to educate themselves and prepare themselves for careers. Consequently the age at which they are prepared to settle down is a bit older and they may feel the clock is ticking. Even though they are a bit older and more experienced, when it comes to choosing a partner to start a family with, they may make mistakes.

“If you are going to have children with someone you need to be absolutely sure, no matter how much the clock is ticking. It is absolutely ludicrous and childish for people to think that they can have a child with someone and move on. You cannot take these risks with other people’s lives on a whim.”

The study also found that two thirds of couples believe it is harder to maintain a relationship nowadays compare to a generation ago. Almost two in five couples said it was more difficult to maintain a relationship because women were forced to work and had less time for their partners, while 22 per cent thought couples were less committed and too quick to split. One in 10 believe couples take having children “too lightly”.

Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard said: “Relationships are tough at the best of times, but add in young children, lack of time, work and money worries and it’s little surprise couples are splitting up earlier than ever before. There is unprecedented pressure on women to be the perfect wife, mother and career woman while men are feeling more and more unsure of their role.”

Having children was shown to be the biggest problem area. Almost half (42 per cent) of people who took part in the research claimed having children made them less close – with only a third saying they became closer after kids.

Four in five people polled said their relationship suffered when they were exhausted after the birth of a new baby or looking after young children. Almost half (46 per cent) went off sex, while two in five felt less attractive after putting on weight.

More than half blamed money worries and debts for problems in their relationship, while a third suffered postnatal depression. One in 14 admitted to starting an affair, while 9 per cent said their partner wanted to become more sexually adventurous when they didn’t.