Effects of Cohabitation on Children

As the rate of cohabiting adults in the United States rapidly increases,1) the dynamic of cohabiting unions has simultaneously shifted. Cohabiters are more likely to have children together,2)3) less likely to eventually marry,4) and more likely to serial cohabitate.5) Therefore, children born to cohabiting parents face a significant risk of instability throughout their life as they cope with their parents’ relationship transitions.6)

CohabitingCouples With and Without Children

1. Instability of Cohabiting Unions

Cohabiting unions are already less stable than marriage,7) and the presence of children further destabilizes cohabiting relationships.8) More stable cohabiting couples tend to marry around the time of their child’s birth, whereas less stable unions remain as unmarried cohabiting partners.9) A recent analysis of data from seventeen countries found that, despite cohabitation becoming normative, cohabiting unions still provide less stability for children than marriage.10)

2. Children’s Health

Children living in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from a variety of emotional and social problems, including drug use, depression, and dropping out of high school, as compared to those in married homes.11) According to the Center for Disease Control, children in cohabiting families (whether both biological parents or only one biological parent in the union) are more likely to be without health insurance than children in single parent families, stepfamilies, and married families.12) Children whose biological parents are cohabiting rather than married are also more likely than single-parent families, stepfamilies, and married families to report “good”, “fair”, or “poor” health rather than “very good” or “excellent” health.13)

According to the 2001 cycle of the National Health Interview Survey, 4.7 percent of children in intact married families, 8.0 percent of children raised in remarried stepfamilies, and 8.6 percent of children living with a cohabiting parent had been diagnosed with ADHD, though children living in single-parent families were most likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD (9.1 percent).14)

Children with ADHD

3. Education

Family instability, a trait of cohabiting families, was linked with lower task orientation and lower academic grades for adolescents.15)

National Longitudinal Survey of Youth shows that students from married, always-intact families had an average GPA of 3.0. Students from intact cohabiting families (2.8), married stepfamilies and divorced single-parent families (2.7), cohabiting stepfamilies (2.6), and always-single parent families (2.5) had lower average GPAs than students from always-intact families.16)

GPA

According to the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 28 percent of students who grew up in an intact married family received mostly A’s, followed by students from intact cohabiting families (21 percent), single divorced parent families (18 percent), married stepfamilies (15 percent), cohabiting stepfamilies (11 percent), and always single parent families (9 percent).17)

Received Mostly A's

Ninety one percent of individuals who grew up with married biological parents received a high school degree, according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. They were followed by those who grew up in a married stepfamily (80 percent), those who grew up with a single, divorced parent (76 percent), those who grew up in a cohabiting stepfamily (68 percent), those who grew up with an always-single parent (63 percent), and those who grew up in an intact cohabiting family (60 percent).18)

Received a High School Degree

According to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, thirty six percent of individuals who came from intact, married families received a Bachelor’s degree, followed by those from intact, cohabiting families (20 percent), single divorced-parent families (17 percent), married stepfamilies (16 percent), always-single parent families (8 percent), and cohabiting stepfamilies (7 percent).19)

Received a Bachelor's Degree

4. Child Abuse

Children raised in cohabiting families are particularly vulnerable to abuse. According to the Fourth Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children raised by their cohabiting biological parents are 4.3 times more likely to suffer from physical abuse and 5 times more likely to experience sexual abuse as compared to children raised by their married, biological parents.20)

Physical Abuse

The most dangerous family structure for a child is a cohabiting family in which one of the partners is not a biological parent. The same survey stated that children raised with one biological parent and their non-biological cohabiting partner are 10.3 times more likely to suffer from physical abuse and 19.8 times more likely to experience sexual abuse, as compared to children raised by their married, biological parents.21)

Sexual Abuse

5. Poverty Risk

Children raised in cohabiting families face an increased risk of falling into poverty. According to the 2015 Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 47.5 percent of children who live with their cohabiting parents are in poverty.22) This is partially because cohabiting couples lack the relationship stability and material pooling23) that married couples experience.

1) U.S. Census Bureal Table AD-3 and Pew Research Center analysis of 2007 and 2016 Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/06/number-of-u-s-adults-cohabiting-with-a-partner-continues-to-rise-especially-among-those-50-and-older/.
2) Kennedy, S., & Bumpass, L, Cohabitation and Trends in the Structure and Stability of Children’s Family Lives, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Washington, DC (2011).
3) Child Trends Data Bank, “Family Structure: Indicators on Children and Youth” (2015), available at https://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/59_Family_Structure.pdf.
4) Vespa, Jonathan, “Historical Trends in The Marital Intentions of One‐Time and Serial Cohabitors,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76, no. 1 (2014): 207-217. Guzzo, Karen Benjamin, “Trends in Cohabitation Outcomes: Compositional Changes and Engagement Among Never‐Married Young Adults,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76, no. 4 (2014): 826-842.
5) Vespa, Jonathan, “Historical Trends in The Marital Intentions of One‐Time and Serial Cohabitors,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76, no. 1 (2014): 207-217.
6) Guzzo, Karen Benjamin, “Trends in Cohabitation Outcomes: Compositional Changes and Engagement Among Never‐Married Young Adults,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76, no. 4 (2014): 826-842.
7) , 8) Brown, Susan L, “The Effect of Union Type on Psychological Well-Being: Depression Among Cohabitors versus Marrieds,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior (2000): 241-255.
9) Lichter, Daniel T., Katherine Michelmore, Richard N. Turner, and Sharon Sassler, “Pathways to a Stable Union? Pregnancy and Childbearing Among Cohabiting and Married Couples,” Population Research and Policy Review 35, no. 3 (2016): 377-399.
10) DeRose, Laurie, Mark Lyons-Amos, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Gloria Huarcaya, “The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe,”Social Trends Institute (2017), available at http://worldfamilymap.ifstudies.org/2017/files/WFM-2017-FullReport.pdf.
11) W. Bradford Wilcox, Why Marriage Matters, Third Edition: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences, Institute for American Values (2011).
12) , 13) Blackwell, Debra L, “Family Structure and Children's Health in the United States: Findings from the National Health Interview Survey, 2001-2007,” Vital and Health Statistics, Series 10, Data from the National Health Survey 246 (2010): 1-166. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_246.pdf.
14) Patrick F. Fagan and D. Paul Sullins, “Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder by Family Structure and Religious Practice”, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-140.pdf.
15) Eckenrode J, Marcynyszyn LA, Evans GW, Family Instability During Early and Middle Adolescence, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 2008; 29(5): 380-392.
16) Patrick F. Fagan and Scott Talkington, “Grade Point Average by Family Structure and Religious Practice”, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-109.pdf.
17) Patrick F. Fagan and Scott Talkington, “Students Who Received Mostly A’s in School by Family Structure and Religious Practice”, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-100.pdf.
18) Patrick F. Fagan and Scott Talkington, “Received a High School Degree by Family Structure and Religious Practice”, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-99.pdf.
19) Patrick F. Fagan and Scott Talkington, “Received a Bachelor’s Degree by Family Structure and Religious Practice”, Marriage and Religion Research Institute, available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-105.pdf.
20) , 21) National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIC-4), 2004-2009, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/research/project/national-incidence-study-of-child-abuse-and-neglect-nis-4-2004-2009.
22) U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Current Population Survey, 2015 Annual Social and Economic Supplement, Table C8, available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/cps2015C.html.
23) Kristen R. Heimdal and Sharon K. Houseknecht, “Cohabiting and Married Couples’ Income Organization: Approaches in Sweden and the United States,” Journal of Marriage and Family 65, no. 3 (2003): 534.