Are Cohabiting Parents Bad For Kids?


The number of American couples who are cohabiting and having children without getting married has skyrocketed since the 1970s, and this spells doom for the American family, according to the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values.  In their new report (which is available for purchase, should you wish to shell out $6.50), these scholars claim that we shouldn’t just be afraid for the children of divorce.  Now we need to worry about the children of cohabiters, or perhaps more colorfully, people who are living in sin.

According to the CDC, 42% of children have lived with cohabiting parents by age 12.  Another statistic that NMP scholars find deeply troubling is the number of women who have children with different men: more than 25%.  Socioeconomic status seems to be an influential part of the equation.  Lower-income couples are much less likely to get married, and Americans with only a high school diploma are more likely to cohabit than those with a college degree.

“There’s a two-family model emerging in American life,” explained W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. “The educated and affluent enjoy relatively strong, stable families. Everyone else is more likely to be consigned to unstable, unworkable ones.”

In the eyes of the researchers, this is disastrous for children who are unfortunate enough to grow up without married parents.  According to psychologist John Gottman, these children are subject to “aggression” and “depression.”  For the researchers, this is clearly tied to their parents’ marital status.  If only more couples would get married and stay married, all of our problems would be solved!

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  As marriage historian (I didn’t know there was such a thing either) Stephanie Coontz told NPR, “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.”  In fact, she said, part of the problem could be that people think that marriage itself is the root of family harmony, not the myriad of factors that go into raising well-balanced children.  They may, as a result, rush into relationships which then fall apart.

The moral of the story, once again, is that marriage promotion is not the answer.  While Wilcox and his colleagues may want to push a moral agenda, the real problem is that children who grow up with fewer resources are more likely to experience instability.  The solution is not to push marriage on more couples, it’s to make sure that mothers are not working two jobs to support their kids, that daycare is available and that women have resources if they are in an abusive relationships.  What matters is whether parents have the right tools to raise their children.  And many people in this country don’t.  Their marital status is entirely beside the point.

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Photo from guisse95 via flickr.


Isabelle Letourneau

I think it's funny really, I've been proposed to twice in my life both those people ending up making me miserable, using me, being lazy and so on. So no surprise I left way before a marriage could even take place. Now I have been in a healthy loving relationship for nearly 3 years, we haven't lived together yet, there's no plans for marriage because were not religious and don't believe in joining in the social pressure of getting married for the governments benefit. We believe in taking things slow and making sure things go right and our relationship lasts. I have a daughter from a previous relationship as well and her father is unstable, unreliable, a cheater, a liar and a theif who has 3 other children with 3 other women (You can see why I left). I have seen numerous failed marriages and know it affects the child if you hate your husband/wife but choose to stay for the child's sake, and on top of that not want to deal with divorce, so they cheat instead. I shake my head everytime I see a marriage happen when the relationship has not even been a year in the making. Do you really know a person after only a year? Alot of people fake things for years and makes it hard to really know a person, don't you want to actually be sure and know your future before making such a huge decision. I don't think marriage is for everyone, it even has different meanings for people.

Lepidopter Phoenyx

My daughter grew up in a "broken" home. I chose not to marry OR live with her dad. She spent part of her time at my home and part of her time at his home. I lived with my ex (her former stepdad) for several years before marrying him and then divorced him a few years later. She never doubted that she was loved, and now that she is grown, has told me that she is glad I raised her the way I did. She's now 21, has an apartment with her fiance, their three dogs and six cats, works full time and goes to college full time and maintains a 4.0 GPA.

Penny C.
penny C6 years ago

Its the couples business, no one elses.

tiffany t.
tiffany t6 years ago

Still laughing at this absurd article.

Cynthia Blais
cynthia l6 years ago

Ain't nobody's business but your own. Living together is as much a committment as that piece of flimsy paper. I have seen people stay together legally that the relationship was a joke detrimental to the children. Let's hope in any relationship the children are shown love and true committment that's the bottom line

Ira Herson
Ira Herson6 years ago

The reason couples from lower economic groups have broken relationships is not if they are married or de-facto. It is the pressure and stress of from lack of money. Wealthy married couples must always consider what will happen to their dynamic should they break up. In most cases Divorce means a lower standard of living for the wife and loss of assets for the husband.

In situations of lower income the perceived loss is not so great. In fact in some cases there is no real change,

Since the economy is currently in the dumps anyway the family structure is breaking down already, married or not.

Empress Ginger
Ginger Strivelli6 years ago

couples who just live together are even MORE likely to break up (than married couples who already break up way too easily and often now-a-days)..and broken families ARE BAD for kids, no matter what modern PC culture wants us to think, it is NOT ok, it is not healthy, it is not normal and it leads to 'step-family-drama' which is even WORSE for kids. So yes...the answer is yes, even if it isn't PC to say.

Suze O.
Suze Q6 years ago

First, college does not mean maturity, I have worked with many PhD and MD scientists and psychiatrists, and many are lacking both maturity and/or morals. Many have had affairs with fellows, damaging their own families. Sure did burst my myth about well educated people, maturity and morality. Second, I am divorced after 30 yrs of marriage due to cheating by husband, so I am not keen on marriage. Considering unfathful behavior displayed in front of his 16 yr old son and the things he told him, he created confusion for this child and created a problem of loyalty to dad vs mom. Of course I learned these things many years after the fact, what kind of "father figure" ws my ex-husband? Blatant disrespect and irresponsibility by my son's father and my ex-husband. This was a marital sitution, so damage can occur in any setting. I do not condone cohabitation, I actually had a close male friend ask me if I would shack up and not marry. I flatly told him NO. And I have not and I do not have a male partner in my life, being divorced has made my life peaceful and better than it was when I was married to the particular man I married. My parents on the other hand were married 70 years and I commend them, for it just is not easy. But neither is life without marriage. As far as children are concerned, it requires 2 mature and committed people to raise them unscathed, I persoannly believe it is best done with the benefit of marriage.

Clare E.
Clare Canfield6 years ago

No. Nor is it another human's business to question such trivial things of their fellow human.

David L.
David Laing6 years ago

I would agree. The main criterion for having children is being in a social and financial position that will allow the parents to care for their children responsibly. Marriage is absolutely no guarantee of that!