Why cohabitation is worse than divorce for kids

Sep 09, 2011

A new report says cohabitation has replaced divorce as the biggest source of instability for American families. Brad Wilcox, the report's author, chatted about why this is.

Hi all, I'm so excited to have Brad Wilcox with us today. As  you've probably heard and read, the rate of American couples who live together without being married are rising dramatically -- it grew 13 percent in 2010 alone.  And while it may be a simpler, more convenient arragement for many couples, that doesn't mean it's without complexity -- especially when the couples break up.  

Wilcox's report deals particularly with the ramifications cohabitation can have on children.  We'd love to get your thoughts and questions on this societal shift.  Has it worked for you?  Do you see risks?

I'm also working on an upcoming story about the potential pitfalls of cohabitation, so if you have stories you're willing to share, I'd love to hear from you: mccarthye@washpost.com. 


Okay, let's get going!

Brad, maybe you could start by telling us a little about the report.  Has cohabitation always shown up as a major issue for American families?


No, cohabitation did not begin to play a central role in the American family experience until the 1970s, when it became an increasingly popular alternative or prelude to marriage.


And since the early 1990s, it has become an increasingly popular venue for bearing and rearing children. In fact, today more than 2.5 million kids are living in cohabiting homes--up more than 12-fold from the 1970s. And more than 40% of kids will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either with their own biological parents or with one parent and an unrelated adult.


In fact, because of the growing popularity of cohabitation, our new report finds that children are more likely to experience cohabitation than a parental divorce.

I should also note that our recent report, Why Marriage Matters: 30 Conclusions from the Social Sciences, also has some good news. When it comes to divorce, divorce rates for married families with children have returned almost to their pre-divorce revolution levels. This means that children born now to married parents have better odds of growing up with both parents, compared to children born in the 1970s, at the height of the divorce revolution.


So it's important for us to realize that there is some good news on the family front.

Can you talk a little about the reasons behind the shift toward cohabitation, rather than marriage?

There are at least four factors driving the shift to cohabitation and they run as follows:

1) In our increasingly individualistic society, people prize the freedom and flexibility that cohabitation affords them.

2) Cohabitation and childbearing are especially common among Americans without college degrees. One reason they are not getting married is that the job opportunities for less-educated Americans, especially working-class and poor men, aren't what they used to be. So it's harder for Americans without college degrees to get and stay married.

3) Over the last 40 years, religious attendance has come down. The growing secularization of American life means that people are less likely to feel stigmatized for cohabiting.

4) Finally, my own research indicates that the children of divorce are more likely to cohabit. They are often gun-shy about marriage and see cohabitation as an opportunity to learn about their partner, or avoid the heavy duty commitment they associate with marriage. 

It seems to me that those negative consequences of cohabitation are derived not from the cohabitation itself but from social trends in communities that tend to cohabit. Is encouraging people to marry really the answer, or does the answer lie in fighting drug abuse, child abuse, and neglect within the communities that most experience it?

Good question.

It certainly is the case that cohabiting couples who have children tend to be less educated, poorer, and less committed to their relationship than couples who have children in marriage.

So one reason that children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting families than in intact, married families is that their parents, or the adults in their lives, have fewer of the resources that they need to be good parents.

But the best research on cohabitation and child well-being controls for factors like income, education, and race/ethnicity. And even after you control for these factors, you still find that children in cohabiting families are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, delinquency, drug use, and the like.

For instance, one study from the University of Texas at Austin found that teens living in a cohabiting stepfamily were more than twice as likely to use drugs, compared to teens living in an intact married family--even after controlling for differences in income, education, race, and family instability.

In fact, children in cohabiting stepfamilies did worse on this outcome than children in stable single-parent families.

Research like this suggests to me that cohabitation has an independent negative impact on children, above and beyond the factors that make some Americans more likely to cohabit with children in the first place.

So the answer, I think, is for the nation to improve our children's home environments in a variety of ways--from improving our nation's educational system to improving job opportunities to discouraging parents from cohabiting.

What is the definition of "cohabitation"? Is there a difference in the study between a child living with biological parents who are unmarried or when one adult in the house is a non-biological parent (boyfriend or girlfriend). I can see the disadvantage for kids living in a household where mom or dad is living with a girlfriend or boyfriend. From my personal experience the whole situation rests on the mother. I know women who have not made the best choices in life and invite boyfriends to live with them and this causes instability in home for the kids. I guess I'm wondering if it is really the type of cohabitation or the reasons behind the couple living together unmarried that causes bad outcomes for the children involved?

The evidence suggests that the most dangerous situation is one where a mother cohabits with an unrelated male boyfriend. A recent federal study found that children cohabiting with a parent and an unrelated partner (usually a boyfriend) are about 10 times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused, compared to children living with their own married parents.

But what is also striking about the research on children's educational, psychological, and social outcomes (besides abuse) is that children living with their own biological cohabiting parents tend to do almost as poorly as children living in a cohabiting step-family, as well as children living in a single-parent family. And the association between both types of cohabitation and negative child outcomes persists even after controlling for a range of socioeconomic factors.

So there seems to be something about cohabitation per se that increases the risks that children face.

Now, to be sure, as with other family forms--such as single parenthood--many kids in cohabiting families do just fine.

Nevertheless, the research suggests that cohabitation about doubles a child's risk of negative outcomes like poor school performance, psychological problems, and delinquency/drug use. And, once again, child abuse is much, much more common when kids live with mom and unrelated male boyfriend.


How does cohabitation compare with children brought up by single mothers?

The Why Marriage Matters report focused in its first two editions on divorce and single parenthood.

But as I was reviewing the literature on families for this third edition with my colleagues, I was struck by this fact:

On many outcomes, children in bio- and step-cohabiting families look a lot like children in single-parent families, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences.

So even though kids in cohabiting families have access to two adults they don't generally do better than kids in single-parent families except on economic outcomes.

I think this is probably because cohabiting relationships tend to be characterized by less commitment, less sexual fidelity, more domestic violence, more instability, and more insecurity, compared to married relationships. Needless to say, these kinds of relationship factors don't foster an ideal home environment for children.

And it's also very clear from the research that kids living in a stable, single-parent home are less likely to be abused than kids living in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult male.

How does the problem of cohabitation and its detrimental effects on children correlate with social class? It is my impression that cohabitation is less common in middle-class households with college-educated parents. Isn't there something of a vicious cycle with parents not marrying because of low incomes, so their children aren't exposed to marriage and the resulting improved incomes and other benefits? It seems that this may be contributing to the income inequality that is widely reported in the US.

Yes, there is a vicious cycle at work here.

In a report we published last year called When Marriage Disappears we found that Americans with less education and less income were more likely to cohabit and to have children in cohabiting households.

So children in less-affluent communities end up doubly disadvantaged: their parents are less likely to remain in a stable, married union and they have fewer educational and financial resources to draw upon. In turn, partly because children who are raised outside of marriage are less likely to flourish in school and in the labor market (as young adults), their prospects for economic mobility--i.e., to make good on the American Dream--are limited.

So the retreat from marriage that is now washing over less affluent and educated Americans ends up fostering more income inequality in the nation. In fact, a recent study suggested that about 40% of the recent growth in income inequality in the United States can be attributed to the nation's retreat from marriage.

Do you feel that working with an organization whose stated primary goal is, "To increase the proportion of children growing up with their two married parents" creates a bias in your research? How did you separate their goals from the research?

Fair question.

My own view is that most research on child well-being indicates that kids are more likely to flourish when they are raised in intact, married family where their parents have a decent or very good marriage.

In fairness, I'm sure that my view of this research shapes the way I look at the studies on child well-being that are published. But it is important to note that Why Marriage Matters is coauthored by 18 family scholars from around the nation who have different political beliefs, different religious beliefs, and different disciplinary backgrounds. 

And it is our common view that the research generally supports the conclusion that the "Gold Standard" when it comes to a high-quality, stable home environment is one where kids are living in an intact, married home.

Nevertheless, we strive to be objective in the report. For instance, we note on p. 35 in the report that the negative outcomes associated with cohabitation seem to be less prevalent in Latin American countries where cohabitation is granted more cultural legitimacy.

But I would encourage you to read the endnotes to the report and pick a few studies that you would like to follow up on. Google Scholar will let you look at a lot of these studies and make up your own mind.

Were you able to sift families based on the length of cohabitation? It seems unlikely to me that a family with parents cohabiting for 10 years with children would be less stable than a family with parents married for 10 years. I would buy that a family with a serial monogamist parent who lives with each partner for a short amount of time (under 5 years) would be quite unstable.

One of the striking differences between cohabiting and married families is stability.

A recent study from Drs. Sheela Kennedy (Minnesota) and Larry Bumpass (Wisconsin) found that 65% of children born to cohabiting parents saw their parents break up by age 12, compared to just 24% of children born to married families.

Other research by Dr. Kennedy indicates that even in Sweden, where cohabitation is much more common and culturally accepted, children born to cohabiting parents are 75% more likely to see mom and dad break up by age 12, compared to children born to married parents.

So cohabitation seems to deliver more instability to children, and--if you know anything about kids--that's not good.

Mr. Wilcox, what does your research (or what is your opinion) regarding those families in which the married couple functions day-to-day essentially as a divorced couple whilst living under one roof? Does research favor parents remaining married and physically under one roof with irreconcilable differences for the sake of children, or is it healthier for the parents to divorce and live physically separately? Thank you for considering this question.

Research by Paul Amato and Alan Booth at Penn State suggests that it is better for married parents to part ways when they have a high-conflict relationship - domestic violence, screaming matches, etc. -- for the sake of their children. In such high-conflict marriages, divorce seems to be a better option.

But when parents are simply unhappy, or seemingly drifting apart, or have some other ongoing pattern of conflict, Amato and Booth's research suggests that it is better for the kids if they stay together. In other words, kids are more likely to be harmed if parents in a low-conflict marriage decide to move ahead with a divorce.

A low-conflict divorce can shatter their faith in marriage and, more generally, relationships.

Unfortunately, Amato and Booth also note that about 2/3rds of divorces today involving children are situations where there is low conflict. And their research suggests that parents should not divorce if they have a low-conflict marriage.

So, in the case you mention, I think the parents should stay married.

But it is important to note that there are resources out there - like SmartMarriages.com - that can help couples facing real difficulties make marked improvements in their relationship. And I would encourage couples with real difficulties to make such an effort for their kids' sake, and for their own sake.

I am interested in the profile you've seen of the couples you've studied. Are they both employed? Post-secondary education? Homeowners? My partner and I are an anomaly in our suburban community but, other than having different amounts of melanin, we wouldn't appear to be any different than our friends. 18 years+ together and we don't fit your profile at all.

Yes, you definitely don't fit the cohabiting profile!

Cohabiting couples are generally markedly less stable than married couples.

But there are always exceptions to the sociological rule, and you seem to be one such exception!

Hi Dr. Wilcox, I'm curious what your research indicates about the stability of children in families with two moms or two dads who are not able to get married in their state. Do you find that this type of co-habitation is any stronger/weaker than not? Do civil unions (where applicable) make an adequate substitute for marriage in this instance? Regards

The report does not focus on children in same-sex cohabiting families, largely because there are almost no studies on this subject that rely on large, random, and representative samples of children being raised in gay or lesbian households.

But work by the Williams Institute at UCLA suggests that gay and lesbian cohabiting couples tend to be more stable in states that are more supportive of gay relationships. In a few years, we will have good data on how same-sex marriage affects the stability of gay/lesbian relationships and their children.

I'm a little confused about the title for this chat. Is "worse" meant to suggest that cohabitation is simply more prevalent than divorce, or does it really mean there is evidence that cohabitation leads to worse outcomes (of some kind) for children than divorce does?

The report suggests that cohabitation is a bigger problem for American children today than is divorce. This was a surprising conclusion for me, after reviewing the research.

We drew this conclusion because (a) more kids [42%] will experience some kind of cohabiting household by age 12 than will experience the divorce/separation of their own parents by age 12 [24%] and (b) because the research suggests that cohabitation poses about as much of a social, psychological, and educational risk to children as does divorce. So, given that cohabitation is about as risky for kids as is divorce, and given that cohabitation is now more common than parental divorce, we concluded that the nation's ongoing cohabitation revolution now poses a greater threat to the welfare of America's kids than does the divorce revolution that was launched in the 1970s.

That's the "bad news" from the report.

And with that, I'm signing off.


Thank you for your probing and perceptive questions. For the skeptics out there, I encourage you to read the report and the report's endnotes to make up your own mind about the link between cohabitation and child welfare.

In This Chat
Brad Wilcox
W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University.

Mr. Wilcox's research focuses on marriage, parenthood, and cohabitation, and on the ways that gender, religion, and children influence the quality and stability of American marriages and family life. He has published articles on marriage, cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood in The American Sociological Review, Social Forces, The Journal of Marriage and Family and The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. His first book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago, 2004), examines the ways in which the religious beliefs and practices of American Protestant men influence their approach to parenting, household labor, and marriage. With Nicholas Wolfinger, Wilcox is now writing a book titled, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Children, & Marriage among African Americans and Latinos, for Oxford University Press. With Eric Kaufmann, Wilcox is editing a book on the causes and consequences of low fertility in the West.
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