How Cohabitating Couples Are Harming the American Family

The results of a major study on American family life were released this week detailing the joint research of scholars representing 18 different universities.

Their major conclusion: cohabiting couples are causing family instability for children in American households to steadily increase.

Here are some quick facts from the study:

  • Divorces involving children have largely returned to pre-Divorce Revolution levels. Specifically, about 23% of children whose parents married in the early 1960s divorced by the time the children turned 10.  More recently, slightly more than 23% of children whose parents married in 1997 divorced by the time the kids turned 10.
  • Family instability for U.S. children overall continues to increase. The data shows that 66% of 16-year-olds were living with both parents in the early 1980s, compared to just 55% of 16-year-olds in the early 2000s. This shift is linked to more children being born outside of marriage—especially to cohabiting couples—and the fact that these nonmarital unions are overall much less stable.
  • Cohabitation is playing a growing role in children’s lives. Children are now more likely to be exposed to a cohabiting union than to a parental divorce. The report indicates that 24% of kids born to married parents will see their own parents divorce or separate by age 12, while 42% of kids will experience a parental cohabitation by age 12.
  • Children born to cohabiting unions are much more likely to experience a parental breakup compared to children born to married couples. In the U.S., the report finds that the breakup rate is 170% higher for children born to cohabiting couples up to age 12. Even in Sweden, children born to cohabiting couples are 70% more likely to see parents separate by age 15, compared to children born to married parents.
  • Not only is cohabitation less stable, it is more dangerous for children. Federal data shows that children are at least three times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused in cohabiting households, compared to children in intact, biological married parent homes. They are also significantly more likely to experience delinquency, drug use, and school failure.

Three conclusions regarding marriage and families in America today:

  1. The intact, biological, married family remains the Gold Standard for family life in the United States. Children are most likely to thrive, economically, socially, and psychologically, in this family form.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

A detailed record of these findings can be found in the newly updated book Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences, and could be helpful for church leaders in responsibly shepherding their people through this issue (download a summary here).

If you’re going to live with one another, commit to one another.

Adults simply should not play house.

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12 thoughts on “How Cohabitating Couples Are Harming the American Family

  1. Jen says:

    caution. liberal entering the building.

    1st, wes, im incredibly upset with you because somehow i just tripped and accidentally subscribed to “the institute of american values” email list. 🙂 bleh. my gmail just doesn’t know how to handle this anomaly and is considering revolt.

    2nd, The report was published by the National Marriage Project, and the Institute for American Values, two highly partisan groups that almost exclusively advocate for strengthening the institution of marriage.. nothing wrong with that advocacy by me, it’s just not quite our most unbiased, non-agenda-having source of information, here. and the center for marriage and families also rolls up under the IAV?? don’t even get me started……….

    let me just say that i completely agree with your last statement– “If you’re going to live with one another, commit to one another. Adults should not play house.”. Im not trying to denigrate the importance or sanctity of marriage, in fact i believe wholeheartedly in it if you’re going to do it right, but i do have have some problems with this report:

    “66% of 16-year-olds were living with both parents in the early 1980s, compared to just 55% of 16-year-olds in the early 2000s. This shift is linked to more children being born outside of marriage—especially to cohabiting couples.” — how did they make this leap? Even with cohabitation on the rise? 66% of 16 year olds living with both PARENTS. key word. couldn’t these “parents” be married or unmarried? So now statistically there are 11% less. and? last time i checked you don’t have to be married to be considered a parent. how is the decline “linked” to cohabitation? this is a stretch by the IAV, in my opinion, and while it could be a factor, it is not the reason.

    next!

    “Children born to cohabiting unions are much more likely to experience a parental breakup compared to children born to married couples. In the U.S., the report finds that the breakup rate is 170% higher for children born to cohabiting couples up to age 12.” —while this is a nice inflated number put there to get your attention, how is this news? of course it’s higher. relationships, living together (marriage certificate or not), dealing with another person day after day is hard. when the rubber meets the road and you want to kill each other some days, it makes it a lot harder to leave if you have a legally binding contract, shared assets, etc.

    yawn, moving on….

    their fearless leader, w. bradford wilcox, has also said this of the familial divide: “The educated and affluent enjoy relatively strong, stable families. Everyone else is more likely to be consigned to unstable, unworkable ones.” –right. im not quite sure which statement is more ignorant. the assumption that strong stable families belong mainly to the educated and affluent (if so, id like to share the story of my personal “educated and affluent” 2 married parent — and abusive– childhood with mr. wilcox), or his flippant and downright ridiculous ascertainment that if ya aint got the degree or the cash, your family is “unstable and unworkable”. really?? Who is this guy?

    (oh no, she has MORE to say??)..

    It also cited a 2010 report on child abuse that found that children living with two married biological parents had the lowest rates of harm — 6.8 per 1,000 children — while children living with one parent who had an unmarried partner in the house had the highest incidence, at 57.2 per 1,000 children. I would seriously doubt the validity of these numbers. Do any research on abuse, and you will find that statistically and conservatively we know that 2 out of 3 people have been sexually abused over the course of their lifetime, most of course happening during childhood. While both of the IAV’s numbers for married vs. cohabitating are extremely low, 6.8/1000 for married households is preposterously deflated. This is the problem with reports like this.. if you have an agenda, you will find a statistic to fit it, no matter what. 6.8 vs. 57.2 is cited for one reason and one reason alone—shock value. The (scary) statistical reality is that marriage alone does little to protect your children from harm, and it is irresponsible to even suggest that it could. It’s not a panacea for evil and sin. however the right wing conservative evangelical organizations that put out these reports as a means to scare and tout their agenda and do so with misinformation and arrogance, would like you to believe it is.

    If this weren’t already so long, i would also point out the total irony that while they state “marriage is an important public good, associated with a range of benefits that helps governments serve the common good”, they simultaneously support a ban on gay, what??– MARRIAGE. maybe they’d be happier if only the gays would cohabitate– and do it quietly. sigh, alas, a conversation for another day.

    respectfully and (mostly) playfully,

    j

    • WesWoodell says:

      Thank you, Jen. 79.3% of your comment was worthy of being read. 🙂

      I assume they have additional numbers to back up their case in the book. The info shared in this post was from the linked summary.

      And the tidbit about the educated having more stable marriages is something that’s been documented for a while. If I remember correctly, I read a report about that a long time ago … I think it was a mainstream research agency that revealed the findings too, but I can’t remember for sure.

      • jen says:

        zing! 🙂 i appreciate the .3

        yes, i have read those reports as well. however the blanket statement by this guy is maddening and false.. “Everyone else is more likely to be *consigned* to *unstable, unworkable* ones.” Even if you have a higher likelihood of a more stable marriage with a higher socio-economic status, it is ridiculous to make the converse blanket statement that everyone else is.. what? screwed? thanks, wilcox. you are truly the debbie downer of the conservative elite institution and win the wet blanket award.

        ok, end rant…

        i kind of wonder why cohabitation is on the rise in the 1st place. it seems maybe that is the more thoughtful question worth exploring? the report mentions that the “divorce revolution” has ended. and it’s no secret that people are waiting longer and longer to get married because they want to go to school, live their life, etc. or maybe it’s that most of the younger generations are all too burned & familiar as products of divorce and are trying to avoid it at all costs. maybe misguidedly mistaking marriage as the problem, and not the people in it.

      • WesWoodell says:

        You pose a good question regarding the reason why cohabitation is on the rise. It may be because it’s not a taboo in our culture nowadays when it was before.

        It seems like a lot of things are acceptable today that used to be taboo – some of that’s good (like the acceptance of interracial relationships), and some of that’s bad (like this cohabitation thing).

  2. Daniel W says:

    Wes,

    I was highly intrigued by these results, especially since they support my values and worldview, and I was ready to spread the word. That is, until I saw in Jen’s comment that these results were gathered by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values. Now I am extremely skeptical about the validity of the statistics. There has to be a study somewhere by a more impartial organization about these sorts of issues. Also, I would be curious to see the peer reviews of these findings. Basically, unless this study survives the gauntlet of peer evaluation, it is just a case of preaching to the choir. People who already know that marriage is important will look to the study to gain confidence in their worldview, while people who are more skeptical of the importance of marriage will shrug the study off as biased garbage.

    • WesWoodell says:

      Hrmph – I hadn’t heard of this organization before a friend directed me to the results of this study yesterday. What do you know about them?

      University professors involved in this study work at places like University of California at Berkeley, Brookings Institution, University of Chicago, Penn State, and several others – I wouldn’t consider those listed conservative institutions.

      • Daniel W says:

        Hm…I think I should restate what I said upon further review. I guess all I can say is that these organizations are rather controversial. They do have a clear agenda of promoting the traditional marriage and its importance. However, this does not necessarily mean their findings are misleading. That is why I would like to see how sociologists review the findings of these organizations. Do professionals in the field generally agree that the findings are accurate? You are right that there are definitely respectable scholars involved with these institutions, and you can’t really accuse them of being ultra conservatives. One organization that criticizes the findings of the National Marriage Project is the Alternatives to Marriage Project. Obviously, this organization also has an agenda and is no more reliable.

        To conclude, the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project are definitely not as biased and unreliable as Jen or myself made them sound in our posts above. These are definitely organizations associated with respectable scholars, even if they do have clear agendas. We should probably look at peer reviews to determine whether the findings are legitimate instead of just dismissing them offhand.

  3. Terry says:

    “The intact, biological, married family remains the Gold Standard for family life in the United States. Children are most likely to thrive, economically, socially, and psychologically, in this family form.”

    Does the report indicate how likely children are to thrive in adoptive families?

  4. Well, my mom and step dad cohabited, and the fact that there was just some random man living with us resulted in sexual abuse. Then my brother experienced all three: delinquency, drug use, and school failure.

    Jen, I don’t know how something can be that long and still not include an outline of your perspective. You leave a lot to mere inference. What do you believe?

    Doesn’t any moral argument come down to belief anyway? Of course, our culture’s dependence on Empiricism as a means of philosophy is a discussion for another day. 🙂

  5. G says:

    Not sure where this fits, but a lot of cohabitation happens after a first marriage goes bad. I used to think of it as a young people thing, but even seniors “shack up”these days to keep their SSI in tact.

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