There's Nothing Good about Cohabitation

Article excerpt

Q: Our 19-year-old son has been dating a 21-year-old woman for six months. Three months ago, they signed a lease and moved into an apartment together. She is now pregnant. She doesn't want to get married for a year or two. What risks does our son face concerning parental rights?

A: It never ceases to amaze me how naive people are today about cohabitation. In fact, cohabitation is one of the fastest-growing family forms in the United States. More than 4 million couples are cohabiting, compared to fewer than a half-million in 1960.

Because few cohabiting couples are practicing celibacy, it is little wonder that a lot of cohabiting women become pregnant. Indeed, 36 percent of all cohabiting households, nearly 1.5 million in all, include children younger than 18 years. Half of unmarried couples in the 25-to-34 age group have children present. Your son and his girlfriend are about to add to these statistics.

So, Dr. Horn, what's so bad about that? Get into the 21st century, won't you? A couple don't have to be married to love one another. After all, marriage is just a piece of paper, isn't it?

Well, not exactly. Research consistently shows cohabitation to be a very weak family form. Cohabiting couples break up at much higher rates than do married couples. Although about 40 percent of couples who have a child eventually marry, they are at least 50 percent more likely to divorce than couples who get married before having children. Overall, three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16, compared to only about one-third of children born to married parents.

Once a father is no longer living in the household, his involvement with this children declines rapidly. Forty percent of children who do not live with their fathers have not seen their fathers in more than a year. Of the remaining 60 percent, only one in five sleeps even one night per month in the father's home. Overall, only one in six children living without a father sees the father an average of once per week.

The fact is, children born to cohabiting couples are likely, before too long, to see their dads transform into occasional visitors. Given what we know about the importance of early parental attachment, it may be worse for children to bond with their father at an early age, only to see him disappear later in life, than never to have established a relationship in the first place. The lesson here is clear: If children could choose their parents, few would choose cohabiting ones.

Cohabitation is not just bad for children. It also is not so good for adults. Married adults are, on average, happier, healthier and wealthier than their cohabiting counterparts. Married couples also report more satisfying sex lives, contrary to the popular perception perpetuated by the media. Married couples fight less than cohabiting couples and are less likely to abuse alcohol or illegal drugs.

Given the mountain of evidence suggesting the superiority of marriage, I simply don't get why we have become so permissive about cohabitation. …