Study: Are Cohabiting Parents Bad For Kids?

Aug 16, 2011
Originally published on August 16, 2011 2:25 pm

As more and more U.S. couples decide to have children without first getting married, a group of 18 family scholars is sounding an alarm about the impact this may have on those children.

In a new report out on Tuesday, they say research shows the children of cohabiting parents are at risk for a broad range of problems, from trouble in school to psychological stress, physical abuse and poverty.

The study is put out by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, groups whose missions include strengthening marriage and family life. It suggests a shift in focus is needed away from the children of divorce, which has long been a preoccupying concern for such scholars.

Brad Wilcox, a report co-author and head of the National Marriage Project, says divorce rates have steadily dropped since their peak in 1979-80, while rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing have soared. Forty-one percent of all births are now to unwed mothers, many of them living with — but not married to — the child's father.

Wilcox notes that the iconic 1979 movie of the divorce revolution, Kramer vs. Kramer, is no longer emblematic of the drama facing families today.

"It'd be Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Johnson and Nelson," he says with a small laugh. "We're moving into a pattern where we're seeing more instability, more adults moving in and out of the household in this relationship carousel."

Wilcox says the children of the divorce revolution grew up to be understandably gun-shy about marriage. Many are putting it off, even after they have kids. But research shows such couples are twice as likely to split.

"Ironically," he says, "they're likely to experience even more instability than they would [have] if they had taken the time and effort to move forward slowly and get married before starting a family."

In fact, another recent study finds that a quarter of American women with multiple children conceived them with more than one man. Psychologist John Gottman, a co-author of Tuesday's report, says that kind of instability can have a negative impact on kids in all kinds of ways.

"Both in externalizing disorders, more aggression," Gottman says, "and internalizing disorders, more depression. Children of cohabiting couples are at greater risk than children of married couples."

This is true, says marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, "but the question is why it's true."

Coontz teaches family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state and is research director for the Council on Contemporary Families. She says people are more likely to get married if they have the things that make a union strong: mutual respect, problem-solving skills and — especially — economic security.

That's something many working-class men have lost as wages stagnated in recent decades. In fact, Coontz notes that a huge marriage gap has emerged, with lower-income Americans much less likely to wed.

"Cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing is as much a symptom of the instability of children's lives as it is a cause of it," Coontz says. Coontz worries that too many Americans who break up with a partner rush into another relationship, thinking this will provide more stability for their children. As Tuesday's report notes, the appearance of a new caregiver can also be traumatic for children, many of whom appear to fare better with a loving single parent.

To be sure, not all marriages are good, and some cohabiting couples create perfectly healthy families. But psychologist Gottman says for whatever reason — and it's a mystery to researchers — cohabiting partners are not as stable in the U.S. as in some European countries, where family-building outside marriage is more of a norm.

For Americans, Gottman says the evidence for marriage is strong. The institution's wide-ranging benefits — better health, longevity, greater wealth — are not conferred on those who cohabit.

"Because," he says, "they're basically saying, 'If you get into trouble, baby, you're on your own; I'm not there for you.' I think that's the big problem."

Gottman's advice, even if you decide not to tie the knot: pick a partner carefully, then hang in there — for better, or worse.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Marriage isn't the social requirement it used to be. Census figures show just over 40 percent of all births in America are to unwed mothers. Many are living with their child's father, but choosing not to marry. Some family researchers say that's bad news for their children.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports some are sounding an alarm in a new study out today.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: For decades, a main concern for those who study the well-being of children was the Big D - divorce. Angst over the divorce revolution hit the big screen in the iconic movie "Kramer vs. Kramer."

(Soundbite of movie, "Kramer vs. Kramer")

MERYL STREEP: (As Joanna Kramer) I want my son.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ted Kramer) You can't have him.

STREEP: (As Joanna Kramer) Don't get defensive. Don't try to bully me.

HOFFMAN: (As Ted Kramer) I'm not getting defensive.

LUDDEN: But divorce rates have steadily dropped since that peak in 1979. So if there were to be an iconic drama about families today?

BRAD WILCOX: Well the thing is, it'd be Kramer vs. Kramer vs., you know, vs. Johnson and Nelson.

LUDDEN: That's Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project.

WILCOX: We're moving into a pattern where we're seeing, you know, more instability, more adults moving in and out of the household on this relationship carousel.

LUDDEN: Wilcox says the children of the divorce revolution grew up to be - understandably - gun-shy about marriage. Many are putting it off, even after they have kids. But research shows such couples are twice as likely to split.

WILCOX: Ironically, they're likely to experience even more instability than they would if they had sort of taken the time and the effort to move forward slowly and get married before starting a family.

LUDDEN: In fact, one study finds a quarter of American women with multiple children conceived their kids with more than one man. Psychologist John Gottman, a co-author of today's report, says that kind of instability can have a negative impact on kids in all kinds of ways.

JOHN GOTTMAN: Both in externalizing disorders, so more aggression, and internalizing disorders, more depression, children of cohabiting couples are at greater risk than children of married couples.

LUDDEN: Also, the report says, at greater risk for failure in school, for physical abuse, for poverty.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: Well it's true, but the question is why it's true.

LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington State. She says people are more likely to get married if they have the things that make a union strong: mutual respect, problem-solving skills, and especially economic security. That's something many working-class men have lost, as wages stagnated in recent decades. In fact, a huge marriage gap has emerged, with lower-income Americans much less likely to wed.

COONTZ: Cohabitation and out-of-wedlock child bearing is as much a symptom of the instability of children's lives as it is a cause of it.

LUDDEN: To be sure, not all marriages are good, and some cohabiting couples create perfectly healthy families. But psychologist Gottman says the evidence for marriage is still strong. This institution has wide- ranging benefits - better health, longevity, greater wealth - but they're not conferred on those who cohabit.

GOTTMAN: Because they're basically saying, if you get into trouble, baby, you're on your own. I'm not there for you. I think that's the big problem.

LUDDEN: As Gottman sees it, Americans are too quick to rush into and out of relationships. His message: Even if you don't tie the knot, pick a partner carefully, then hang in there for better or worse.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.