Is Marriage Overrated? Not for Children
by David Gibson
Young children tend to attach strongly to the adults who love and take care of them – parents or grandparents, for example. These relationships provide security and bode well for children as they begin the long journey to adulthood.
But what happens when some attachments children form at home with a parent-figure are insecure and temporary? The question preoccupies Scott Stanley, a University of Denver marriage research professor.
In several 2012 postings to his “Sliding vs. Deciding” blog, Stanley invites readers to consider how children’s development may be hindered or helped by the married or cohabiting adults in their lives. Once children become adults, will it matter whether they:
a) Started out in life with “a secure sense of the dependability and availability of others?” or
b) Started out with “a sense that there is little security in important relationships?”
He suspects that “secure relationships with caregivers when children are young” not only are crucial for them personally, but crucial for society’s “overall functioning.”
While insisting he generally is an optimist, Stanley nonetheless thinks — given “an ever greater amount of family instability for young children” — that “we pretty much have to be raising the greatest number of children ever who will grow up with serious attachment issues.”
A very widely reported study this year comparing marriage and cohabitation prompted Stanley’s current reflections. (The study, “Re-examining the Case for Marriage: Union Formation and Changes in Well-being,” by Kelly Musick and Larry Bumpass, appeared in February’s Journal of Marriage and Family.)
To be precise, the headlines on numerous reports about the study were what really disturbed Stanley. He felt the headlines misrepresented the study. There were headlines proclaiming, for example, that “Marriage Is Overrated” or that “Getting Married May Not Be Better Than Living Together.”
I saw those headlines and heard them repeated on the radio in January and February. Perhaps you did too.
The headlines contributed “to a growing belief among those in the next generation that marriage really does not matter,” Stanley wrote. The headlines “educated” countless numbers of young people “that marriage provides few benefits over cohabiting,” he added.
But what the study actually reported was not quite as grandiose as the headlines, Stanley indicated. He explained that a key point the authors made was that, “at least in the relative short-run,” both married and cohabiting couples experienced a raised sense of well-being due to “being in love and feeling connected to another.”
Stanley asked, “Is that surprising when viewed in that light?” It is much different, however, “from the headlined inference that marriage may be irrelevant,” he commented.
Still, Stanley felt something was “missing” in all of this. He noted that the study focused on individual well-being for married or cohabiting adults – for example, their happiness or self-esteem.
The issue Stanley did not see discussed in the study or reports on it was: “Does the status of a couple’s relationship matter for family stability? Does it matter at all for children?”
It seems marriage matters “a great deal in child outcomes,” Stanley wrote. He said:
“Maybe marriage is not ‘overrated’ as a context for bearing and raising children. The individual well-being of adults is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters in evaluating marriage.”
Stanley suggested that what often is missing in marriage research and its investigations of how couples transition into parenthood is “an assessment of something one might call family happiness and contentment, which goes beyond relationship quality per se and certainly beyond individual happiness as often conceptualized.”
Cohabiting Parents More Likely to Break Up
In a March 17 blog entry, Stanley said that in today’s “ongoing and varied discussions of cohabitation, marriage and family,” there is “sometimes way too little attention to how societal trends and family dynamics affect children.”
“Attachment is an unalterable, important human need and reality, and how attachment systems form in individuals really matters for everything else that really matters,” Stanley stressed.
But he observed that, statistically speaking, “a baby born to cohabiting parents is about five times more likely than a baby born to married parents to experience the dissolution of his or her parents’ relationship by age 2.”
He also called attention to a 2012 report by Child Trends, a research center in Washington, which said more than half of births to women in America under age 30 now occur outside marriage.
The “nitty gritty” is that “when a baby’s parents do not have enough commitment in their own relationship to sustain it as a parenting relationship, they will break up (if there was a relationship in the first place),” Stanley said.
Later, the parent with custody of the child may enter into a new relationship, which may or may not become a lasting one. Stanley wrote:
“Imagine you are 2 years old and your mother falls in love with a man who moves in for 13 months and then moves on. … Now that person you attached to is gone, and often all of a sudden (and maybe with lots of conflict preceding that departure).”
And this scenario may be repeated, as researchers have reported in many instances.
“It does not take any kind of scientist to see” what this could imply for the growth of insecurities in children related to human attachments or to imagine what this might mean for society, Stanley commented.
Among his concerns, Stanley told me, is that society will witness “stuff that bodes poorly for the next generations,” like “more childhood mental health problems,” more people finding it difficult to make commitments, more domestic violence or increased substance abuse.
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.