Cohabitation Worse for Children Than Divorce

Marriage, a universal institution of divine origin, is the foundation on which to order society, build families, and raise children. The majority of juvenile delinquents and men in prison were raised in female-headed households. Children living in single-parent households are more likely to be poor, abuse alcohol and drugs, and have babies outside marriage.

Generally, married men and women are safer, healthier, happier, and financially better off than their single, separated, or divorced counterparts. Fathers married to the mother of their children are more emotionally and financially invested in their offspring.

Children living with their married, biological parents have greater academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems, and report higher levels of psychological well-being. Notwithstanding efforts to undermine, redefine, and mock marriage, children greatly benefit when their parents are committed to each other and to them.

Some believe marriage is only a “piece of paper,” and that living together without the piece of paper is less harmful to children than divorce. According to “Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” a new study cosponsored by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project (NMP) at the University of Virginia, they’re wrong. Divorce no longer is the greatest threat to family stability and child well-being. Cohabitation (also known as shacking up) is “the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives.”

The good news is the divorce rate is down since peaking in the early 1980s, but family instability is increasing. Children are much more likely to live in cohabiting households than divorced households. In these less stable and more dangerous unions, children are at least three times more likely to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused than children in intact, married families. The researchers concluded that “cohabitation has emerged as a powerful alternative to and competitor with marriage.”

It seems counterintuitive. If children fare better living with two married parents than one, they’d fare the same or only slightly worse living with two unmarried parents. That’s not the case with abuse. According to the report, children in cohabitating homes are “markedly” more likely to suffer abuse than those in both intact, married families and single-parent families. However, children in cohabitating households fare better economically than children in single-parent households.

Sociologist and NMP director W. Bradford Wilcox said that unmarried couples living together are more likely to be unfaithful and to break up.

“But is cohabitation really the problem, or some deeper factor — like poverty or relationship troubles that predated the cohabitation?” Wilcox wrote on a New York Times blog. “The truth is that these other factors account for some of cohabitation’s negative impact but the best studies suggest that cohabitation also has an independent negative effect, precisely because it does not institutionalize commitment in a way that is easily understood and honored by romantic partners and their friends and family.”

The study also focused on “complex households,” where children and adults live with half-siblings, stepsiblings, stepparents, and stepchildren, and referred to “multiple-partner fertility,” in which parents have children with more than one partner. These children tend to have behavioral and health problems, perform poorly in school, and report poor relationships with their parents.

Family instability has always hit poor and working-class communities hardest. While family instability is prevalent in poor communities, research shows that it’s rising in lower middle-class communities. In contrast, marriage is becoming stronger among more educated and affluent communities.

Children live in a separate-and-unequal society not caused by racism or so-called bias. There is a marriage gap between more educated parents who married before having children and remain together raising the children, and less educated parents who don’t. Senior Manhattan Institute fellow Kay Hymowitz discussed the marriage gap between better educated mothers and less educated single mothers in Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. Despite the so-called sexual revolution, which arguably benefited men more than women, better educated women continued to marry before having children.

More educated mothers tend to be dedicated to what Hymowitz calls The Mission, “the careful nurturing of their children’s cognitive, emotional, social development.” The goal is to produce children who do well in school, go to college, marry, and have children. She calls it common sense (backed up by research) that mothers with husbands have a greater chance of fulfilling The Mission.

The NMP report’s researchers acknowledge that marriage isn’t the cure-all for society’s problems, but they contend that marriage is “an issue of paramount importance” if we want to protect our most vulnerable citizens, “the working class, the poor, minorities, and children.”

Although attitudes about marriage have changed over the years, the importance of marriage to children and to society has not changed. The research is solid and mounting. Children are safer and more likely to thrive living with a mother and father married to each other. Regardless of how society tries to minimize or radically redefine marriage, it’s the best environment in which to raise healthy, happy, and law-abiding citizens.

Originally published in September 2011 at La Shawn Barber’s Corner.

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