Cohabitation More Likely to Threaten Children Than Divorce
by David Gibson
The stability of family life declined for U.S. children over the last three decades, “in part because childbearing and childrearing” became common among unmarried, cohabiting couples, according to a report released in mid-August by a team of 18 leading scholars in the fields of marriage and family life.
“Cohabiting households” tend to be “much more fragile than married families,” the scholars said.
The report suggested that this decline of stable family life for children occurred during a period that might have anticipated precisely the opposite outcome — a period that witnessed a decline of the U.S. divorce rate.
During the 20th century’s second half, “divorce was the event most likely to undercut the quality and stability of children’s family lives,” the report explained. However, it continued, as divorce rates declined after “peaking in the 1980s, children who are now born to married couples are actually more likely to grow up with both of their parents than were children born at the height of the divorce revolution.”
Today, “the rise of cohabiting households with children is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives,” the report stated.
Titled “Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions From the Social Sciences,” the report was co-sponsored by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
Cohabitation Linked to Unfavorable Outcomes
W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, was the report’s lead author. Commenting on the report’s conclusions, he said that “more couples are having children in cohabiting unions, which are very unstable.”
Wilcox said the report also “indicates that children in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems – drug use, depression and dropping out of high school – compared to children in intact, married families.”
The report cited federal data showing that children in cohabiting households are at least three times more likely than children in the intact homes of their married parents to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused.
Children are “less likely to thrive in cohabiting households,” the report said.
The state of marriage should be a public-policy concern, the report proposed. “If policymakers are concerned about issues as varied as poverty, crime, child well-being, rising economic inequality and the fiscal limits of the contemporary welfare state, they should recognize that the nation’s retreat from marriage is closely connected to all of these issues,” it said.
Scott Stanley, a noted marriage researcher at the University of Denver, is among the report’s co-authors. He told me he thinks that when it comes to marriage, even the most ardent skeptics agree that children, on average, “fare best being raised by their own two parents.”
The report recognized that marriage “is not a panacea that will solve all of our social problems.” But “marriage matters,” it stressed. Marriage, it said, “is more than a private emotional relationship. It is also a social good.”
None of which is to claim “that every child raised outside of marriage is damaged as a result,” the report cautioned. It observed that “while cohabitation is associated with increased risks of psychological and social problems for children, this does not mean that every child who is exposed to cohabitation is damaged.”
It cited a nationally representative study of 6- to 11-year-olds showing that “16 percent of children in cohabiting families experienced serious emotional problems.” This rate was much higher than the 4 percent rate for children in families headed by their married biological or adoptive parents, the report said.
Poorer Children at Special Risk
The “retreat from marriage” in the U.S. “has hit poor and working-class communities with particular force,” the report noted. In a discussion of what is known as the “marriage gap,” the report said that “since the early 1980s, children from college-educated homes have seen their family lives stabilize, whereas children from less-educated homes have seen their family lives become increasingly unstable.”
The report said that “the deinstitutionalization of marriage has largely been limited to working-class and poor communities in the United States.”
This means, it said, that “children in poor and working class communities” can be “triply disadvantaged.” They have fewer economic resources, and their “parents are less likely to be married.” Furthermore, these children “are more likely to be exposed to numerous family transitions” over time.
In its discussion of “family transitions,” the report said evidence “suggests that multiple transitions (where children are exposed to more than one breakup or new relationship) are especially harmful for children.”
Stanley said that “scholars who otherwise are deeply divided on things like marriage” tend to agree that “multiple partner transitions” by a child’s mother or father can be “a big problem.” He acknowledged that many children “are resilient and do fine,” though “on average, these changes are a big deal in the lives of children.”
Today, more than four in 10 U.S. children will live in a household headed by a cohabiting couple, the report says. For, “approximately 24 percent of the nation’s children are born to cohabiting couples,” and about another 20 percent “spend time in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult at some point.”
Thus, cohabitation has emerged in U.S. society “as a powerful alternative to and competitor with marriage,” the report concluded. It said, though, that “cohabiting couples who have a child together are more than twice as likely to break up before their child turns 12, compared to couples who are married to one another.”
The report insisted that “cohabitation is not the functional equivalent of marriage.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.