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Cohabiting with Children

Husband and wife research team, David and Amber Lapp are co-investigators for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project at the Institute for American Values. In preparation for their forthcoming book, the couple spent a summer in Ohio interviewing about 100 young adults, many from “working class” neighborhoods, about marriage and family. Among the working class young adults they interviewed (those with only a high school degree), over two-thirds had cohabited, often with children. One of the key findings from their research is that while many of these young adults hope to get married one day and even revere marriage “as something that ought not to be broken,” most do not link marriage to having children.

In a March 2012 article for Public Discourse, the Lapps explain that while the majority of young adults they interviewed “separate children from marriage, they do not necessarily separate sex from children.” To illustrate this point, the Lapps shared the story of a 27 year-old young man named Ricky, “who has been in four cohabiting relationships,” including three relationships that included children.

“It’s kind of biased if you say you have to be married because you have a kid, you know,” Ricky told the Lapps. “‘Cause I mean, that’s not the point … that doesn’t matter.” While Ricky acknowledged that, “of course, a child needs a father figure, and of course, a child needs a mother figure,” he believes this “really has nothing to do with the marriage.”

Ricky is not alone in his belief that marriage has little, if anything, to do with raising children. According to the Lapps, a phrase they heard often from the young adults they interviewed about unwed pregnancy is, “if it happens, it happens.”

Non-marital childbearing is happening at increasing rates nationwide, and it is not what it used to be. Only about 30 years ago, the term “unwed parent” was mainly associated with a teenage or adult woman raising a child alone. Today, the face of unwed parenthood has changed from a lone single mother to a cohabiting couple raising children in what experts consider to be the most fragile of family forms. In fact, according to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, more children today are born to cohabiting parents than to single mothers.

While popular culture portrays cohabitation as a “fun” and generally equivalent alternative to marriage, the reality is that cohabiting relationships are more fragile, less happy, and more violent. Children of cohabiting parents have a higher risk of experiencing the breakup of their families, living in poverty, having more psychological problems, and suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The growing number of children in cohabiting families has family scholars worried about the future wellbeing of children in a society where unmarried parenting is widely embraced.

A New Family “Norm”?

Once considered a social taboo, the number of unmarried couples in the U.S. increased more than 17-fold between 1960 and 2010, and has replaced marriage as the “first living together experience for young men and women.” The following statistics are noteworthy:

  • Over 60 percent of first marriages are preceded by cohabitation.
  • An estimated 25 percent of women ages 25 to 39 are currently living with an unmarried partner, and an additional 25 percent have cohabited in the past.
  • In North Carolina, 5.2 percent of all households are unmarried, opposite-sex partner households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cohabitation and Unwed Births. The trend in cohabitation is credited with driving recent increases in non-marital births in the U.S., and in the proportion of children who are growing up with unwed parents. In fact, four in 10 children today are born to unwed mothers, which represents a six-fold increase since 1960. However, unwed births are not increasing because more teenage girls and adult single women are having babies, but because over half of non-marital births are to unmarried women who are living with their child’s father. According to the National Marriage Project’s 2011 “State of Our Unions” report:

  • Over 40 percent of cohabiting households contain children today.
  • About 24 percent of all children are born to cohabiting parents, and an additional 20 percent of children will live in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult.
  • In North Carolina, according to 2010 data from Kids Count, seven percent of all children live with cohabiting parents.

Consequently, cohabitation has replaced divorce as the main reason for family instability today. According to Why Marriage Matters, a 2011 report signed by 18 family scholars, children born today are more likely to spend time in a cohabiting family than they are to experience the divorce of their parents. By age 12, about 24 percent of children will have experienced the divorce of their married parents, versus 42 percent of children who will live with cohabiting parents.

Child Wellbeing

In the 2002 report, Should We Live Together, sociologists David Poponoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead advised young adults: “Do not cohabit if children are involved.” Nearly a decade later, 18 noted family scholars issued a similar warning, describing the increasing numbers of children being raised by cohabiting couples as “the largely unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s lives today.”

Their concerns are grounded in the growing body of social science research on cohabitation and children, which shows that when compared to the children of married parents, children in cohabiting families fare worse on several social, educational, and psychological outcomes. For example, according to the National Marriage Project, children in cohabiting families are more likely to use drugs, suffer from depression, and drop out of school than children from married-parent families.

Fragile Families

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW) is a national, ongoing study by researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities that is following 5,000 children from birth through age five, including 3,700 children of unwed parents, many of whom are cohabiting. The FFCW study includes a wealth of information about “fragile families,” which are defined by the researchers as “unmarried parents and their children” who “are at greater risk of breaking up and living in poverty than traditional families,” and includes a significant proportion of cohabiting parents.

As this and other studies of unmarried families have found, the differences between cohabitation and marriage go deeper than the lack of a wedding ring and a marriage license to the poor quality and longevity of cohabiting relationships, which create an unstable home environment for children. This increases the likelihood that children being raised by cohabiting parents will experience the dissolution of their family, and be forced to transition in and out of new, and often confusing, family forms.

Cohabitation vs. Marriage: In general, cohabiting couples report lower levels of commitment, higher levels of disagreement, and lower levels of happiness than married couples. Cohabiting adults also break up at significantly higher rates than married couples. According to one U.S. study, cohabiting unions are five times more likely to dissolve than marital unions.

Cohabitation also negatively impacts the health of parents and their ability to parent well. The FFCW study found that unwed parents are more likely to report poor mental and physical health, to drink heavily, to use illegal drugs, and to be “unable to form stable relationships.”

Family Dissolution. As discussed, the breakup rate for cohabiting couples is significantly higher than the breakup rate for married couples. But what about the breakup rate for cohabiting couples with children? The FFCW Study found that five years after the birth of a child, most cohabiting relationships have ended, with only 35 percent of cohabiting parents still together, and less than one half of that 35 percent married.

One study in Norway, where cohabitation is more prevalent than in the U.S., found that the children of cohabiting couples are two and a half times more likely to experience the breakup of their parents than children of married parents. In the U.S., according to the National Marriage Project, 65 percent of children living with a cohabiting mother will experience parental separation by age 12, compared to 24 percent of children living with a married mother.

The “Cohabitation Effect.” Children with cohabiting parents who get married are also more likely to experience the divorce of their parents than children with married parents who did not cohabit before marriage. Cohabiting couples that marry have, on average, a 65 percent higher risk of divorcing than married couples who did not cohabit prior to marriage.

The negative association between premarital cohabitation and marriage has been dubbed the “cohabitation effect” by researchers at the University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies. According to Professors Scott M. Stanley and Galena Rhoads, who are leading the research, cohabiting before marriage is associated with:

  • More negative commitment in marriage.
  • Lower levels of marital satisfaction.
  • Erosion over time of the value and view of marriage and childrearing.
  • A greater likelihood of divorce.

Complex Families. Finally, the fragile nature of cohabiting families often leads to what experts have dubbed “complex families” that result when cohabiting parents end their relationship, and unmarried mothers enter new relationships and have children with these men. According to the FFCW Study, nearly 40 percent of unmarried mothers will cohabit with a new partner after their relationships with their child’s father ends, and 14 percent will have another child with a new partner.

The 2011 Why Marriage Matters report explains that these “transitions into and out of marriage, cohabitation and single parenthood” for children “are linked to higher reports of school failure, behavioral problems, drug use, and loneliness…” According to the report, children who live in these complex households “are more likely to report poor relationships with their parents, to have behavioral and health problems, and to fail in school, even after controlling for factors such as education, income, and race.”


Who Cohabits and Why?

The popularity of cohabitation as a suitable alternative or precursor to marriage has been attributed, in part, to the Sexual Revolution, the resulting decline of marriage, and the high rates of divorce in the United States. According to the 2011 “State of Our Unions” report from the National Marriage Project at UVA, cohabitation is more common among:

  • Those with lower education and lower income levels
  • The less religious
  • Those who have been divorced
  • Those who have experienced the divorce of their own parents, or who have been raised without fathers, or who have experienced “high levels of marital discord” themselves.

The top three motivations young adults give for moving in together, according to recent studies of cohabiting couples, are to spend more time together, to save money by sharing financial responsibilities, and to test relationship compatibility.2 A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of adults who have previously cohabited view cohabitation as a “step toward marriage.”3 Interestingly, ongoing research of cohabiting couples at the University of Denver has found that many cohabiting couples “slide” into living together as the next step of dating, often without even discussing or thinking through the implications.


Child Poverty

The link between child poverty and cohabitation is rooted in the undisputed fact that marriage brings a wealth of economic benefits to adults and children that no other family form can duplicate. A study by The Heritage Foundation estimates that marriage reduces the chances that a child will live in poverty by about 80 percent. While cohabiting parents tend to have more financial resources than single parent families, they are still more likely to be poor than married-parent families.

Compared to married parents, unmarried parents are more likely to rely on public assistance and welfare programs. For example, the FFCW study found that five years after a child is born, 10 percent of cohabiting couples were on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, compared to only two percent of married couples, and 32 percent of cohabiting parents were using Food Stamps, compared to seven percent of married parents.

Another risk factor for poverty among children with cohabiting parents has to do with high breakup rates of cohabiting unions, which increases the likelihood that children of cohabiting parents will end up in a single mother household. For example, one study found that 80 percent of children with cohabiting parents will spend time in single-parent families, which are six times more likely to be poor than married-parent families.

Child Abuse

In September 2011, a two year-old boy in Charlotte, N.C., died from head trauma after suffering repeated physical abuse by his mother’s live-in boyfriend. This is just one example of the often-ignored connection between cohabitation and child abuse that Professor Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, describes as the “dark underbelly of cohabitation.” In general, children in cohabiting households are significantly more likely to suffer from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse than children in either intact married families or single parent families.

According to the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NISCN), children who live with their biological mother and her boyfriend are about 11 times more likely to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, and six times more likely to be neglected, than children living with their married parents. As Professor Wilcox wrote in a 2011 article,

Cohabitation often puts children in contact with unrelated males, who are significantly less likely to invest in these children, and to control their tempers and rein in any sexual attraction they may have, compared with men who have made a public commitment to them and their mother through marriage.

While the most dangerous family environment for children is to live with their biological mother and her cohabiting boyfriend, even children who live with their own cohabiting mom and dad are more likely to be abused or neglected than the children of married parents. According to the previously mentioned NISCN, children living with biological cohabiting parents are four times as likely to be abused and three times as likely to be neglected as children living with their own married parents.

Family Violence. Cohabitation also makes it more likely that children will grow up in a home marred by domestic violence and will witness the physical abuse of their mother by an unmarried partner. That is because physical aggression is about twice as high in cohabiting relationships as it is in married relationships, and studies in the U.S. and in Canada have found that women who are cohabiting are nine times more likely to be killed by their partner than married women.

Amy’s Story

While social science evidence can be informative in building a case for the connection between cohabitation and negative child wellbeing, it is also helpful to put a human face on the statistics. During their research among young, working class adults in Ohio, David and Amber Lapp met a little girl named Amy, whom they offer as an example of the devastating effects of parental cohabitation for children. When Amy was born, her parents, Tom and Hailey, were living together. But the couple split up while Amy was still an infant, in part, because Tom would often hit Hailey in front of the child. “[If] I was holding her, he had no problem to just like choke me or somethin’ for sayin’ the wrong thing in the wrong tone,” Hailey recounted.

Only three weeks after breaking up with Tom, Hailey moved in with the previously mentioned Ricky, who temporarily became “pretty much the dad” to her little girl. Ricky and Hailey were engaged to be married, but broke up when “drug use took a toll on their relationship,” culminating in an incident that involved the couple driving and injecting drugs while Amy was in the back seat of the car. Both adults ended up in jail—Hailey for child endangerment and Ricky for drug possession. Hailey and Amy’s father reunited for a time, and she became pregnant with twins. However, the couple split again when Tom went to jail for domestic violence. Today, Amy rarely sees her biological father or Ricky, about whom she still talks.

According to David Lapp, “cohabitation often acts as an anti-institution,” which he describes as “what many of the working class young adults … say they do precisely because they’re not ready to subscribe to the definite norms and set timetables of the institution of marriage.”

But, as David points out, this can be dangerous for children. He told the North Carolina Family Policy Council,

While it may appear to many young adults—mistakenly, I think—that the fluid timetable and lack of definite norms [of cohabitation] may help them to find just the ‘right person,’ it definitely leaves children vulnerable to all the problems that result when mom or dad cycle in and out of relationships.

He continued, “We’re not just talking about objective outcomes social scientists can measure, but wrestling with deep questions like, ‘Can I trust people?’ and ‘Am I loved?’”

The Best Family for Children

In a 2005 Brookings-Princeton Policy Brief, family scholars Ron Haskins, Sara McLanahan, and Elizabeth Donahue wrote the following about the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study:

Although it was once possible to believe that the nation’s high rates of divorce, cohabitation and non-marital childbearing represented little more than lifestyle alternatives brought about by the freedom to pursue individual fulfillment, many analysts now believe that these individual choices can be damaging to the children who have no say in them, and to the society that enables them.

While cohabiting relationships may look like marriage in terms of providing children with both a mom and a dad, the absence of marriage places children in one of the most fragile and dangerous family environments, while robbing them of the social, psychological, and educational benefits of marriage. What the growing body of data on cohabitation confirms is that all family forms are not equal, especially in terms of their benefits for children.

Despite the increasing societal acceptance of cohabitation and unwed childbearing, the best place to have and raise a child is still within marriage, the only family form that best provides children with the mother and father they need to thrive, and offers the greatest protection against instability, violence, poverty, neglect, and abuse. As a society, we need to do a better job of teaching the next generation about the importance of marriage before children, and the necessity of marriage to children’s wellbeing.




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