Cohabitation Linked to Unstable Families
Special Report - August 17, 2011
Children today are more likely to spend time in a cohabiting household and to suffer a myriad of negative lifetime effects as a result, than they are to experience the divorce of their parents, according to a new report released Wednesday by a team of family scholars from some of the nation’s leading educational institutions. The report, “Why Marriage Matters: 30 Conclusions from the Social Sciences (Third Edition),” is the long-awaited comprehensive summary of the latest research pointing to the importance of marriage to child wellbeing. Co-sponsored by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and by the National Marriage Project (NMP) at the University of Virginia, the report is written by a team of 18 scholars chaired by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the NMP.
The report’s major finding is that cohabitation, which it notes has increased 14-fold since 1970, has replaced divorce as the main contributor to the rising rates of family instability in the United States. In fact, by the age of 12, more children today will spend time in a cohabiting family than will experience the divorce of their parents (see figure 2 from report). While a decrease in parental divorce is certainly a good thing, the increasing rates of cohabitation, particularly for children, is not, because, as the report points out, “cohabitation is not the functional equivalent of marriage.”
“In a striking turn of events, the divorce rate for married couples with children has returned almost to the levels we saw before the divorce revolution kicked in during the 1970s. Nevertheless, family instability is on the rise for American children as a whole,” explains Professor Wilcox in a press release. “This seems in part to be because more couples are having children in cohabiting unions, which are very unstable. This report also indicates that children in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problemsdrug use, depression, and dropping out of high schoolcompared to children in intact, married families.”
Among the key findings in report regarding cohabitation:
- About 24 percent of all children are born to cohabiting parents, which the report notes is more than the percentage of children born to single mothers.
- An additional 20 percent of children will spend some time in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult (often because of the divorce of their parents), meaning that “more than four in 10 children are exposed to a cohabiting relationship.”
- Cohabiting parents with children are more likely to break up before the child turns 12 than married parents with children (see figure 5 from the report).
The report describes the “rise in cohabiting households” as “the largely unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s lives in today’s families.” It details the latest research on cohabitation, which shows that compared to children raised in intact, married families, children in cohabiting families “do significantly worse” on several social, educational and psychological outcomes; and that children in cohabiting households are also significantly more likely to suffer from physical, emotional and sexual abuse than children in either intact married families or single parent families (see figure 3 from report);
Finally, the report includes the following three conclusions that echo the previous findings from the 2002 and 2005 editions of “Why Marriage Matters”:
- “The intact biological, married family remains the gold standard for family life in the United States.
- Marriage is an important public good, associated with a range of economic, health, educational, and safety benefits that help local, state, and federal governments serve the common good.
- The benefits of marriage extend to poor, working-class, and minority communities, despite the fact that marriage has weakened in these communities in the last four decades.”
“This important report shows why the North Carolina statutes against cohabitation are needed,” said Alysse ElHage, associate director of research for the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “The State is correct in recognizing and supporting marriage as the only domestic union that should be recognized. An intact family unit with a married mother and a father is the best place to raise children, and we are pleased that North Carolina law supports this reality.”
Census Report Examines Cohabitation - November 9, 2010
Marriage Beats Cohabitation - March 5, 2010
Most Children Live With Parents - July 27, 2010
Characteristics of Cohabiting Adults Studied - July 16, 2009
Report Analyzes Cohabitation Effects - June 23, 2008
How Cohabitation Undermines Marriage and the Family - Findings - June 2005
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