Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Stability of Cohabitation Relationships: The Role of Children

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Stability of Cohabitation Relationships: The Role of Children

Article excerpt

Our review of the existing evidence on the effects of children on marital stability led us to propose that the presence of children in a cohabitation relationship is very likely to inhibit the cohabiting couple from terminating their relationship. Using event history data from the 1990 Family and Friends Survey on 3,015 cohabitation relationships, we found that while the presence of children has a strong and positive impact on stabilizing cohabitation relationships, characteristics of children such as their number, sex, and age appear to have no significant effect. The implications of these results are discussed.

As nonmarital cohabitation increasingly becomes a part of family life, it is important to understand the multiple determinants of and consequences of variations in the timing of the formation and dissolution of cohabitation relationships. Prior research on marital stability indicates that the presence of a child or children in the family reduces the risk of marital disruption (Becker, Landes, & Michael, 1977; Cherlin, 1977; Lillard & Waite, 1993; Mauldon, 1992; Morgan & Rindfuss, 1985; Morgan, Lye, & Condran, 1988; Thornton, 1977; Waite, Haggstrom, & Kanouse, 1985; Waite Lillard, 1991). Do children stabilize cohabitation relationships as well? In this article, we use a national probability sample of Canadian adults who entered into a cohabitation relationship before their first marriage to examine the effects of the presence, as well as the number, age, and sex, of children on the stability of the relationship. There are three competing outcomes of cohabitation relationships: union separation, legalization through marriage, and widowhood. Because legalizing the relationship is often viewed as satisfaction with the union and the event of widowhood is usually outside human control, this study focuses on the termination of cohabitation by union separation.


Although rapid growth in the rate of nonmarital cohabitation has been extensively documented (e.g., Bumpass & Sweet, 1989), little research attention has been paid to the formation of cohabitation relationships, and even less to the stability of these relationships. Landale and Forste (1991, p. 589) argue that the theories used to explain the timing of marital unions apply to nonmarital union timing as well. Similarly, we contend that theories of marital stability should be pertinent to the stability of cohabitation relationships. Hence, in discussing the role of children in stabilizing cohabiting relationships, we draw extensively on the literature on marital stability.

Prior theory on the relationship between childbearing and marital stability has taken two approaches: an economic approach and a sociological approach. Economic theories tend to focus on the economic value of children in conjugal life and the costs of divorce. For example, Becker's (Becker et al., 1977) theory of divorce begins with the premise that when people marry, they invest in assets such as houses and children. Like other investments, children are seen as "a durable good, primarily a consumer's durable, which yields income, primarily psychic income, to parents" (Becker, 1960, p. 231). However, unlike other investments, children constitute what is called a marriage-specific investment--that is, by definition, worth considerably less in the event of divorce or remarriage (Becker et al., 1977, p. 1156). From this perspective, then, the probability of marital disruption should be negatively associated with children.

Sociological theories direct our attention to the role of children in the sexual division of labor within the family (Durkheim, 1893/1984; Morgan et al., 1988; Waite & Lillard, 1991). For example, a Durkheimian perspective on family life maintains that childbearing and childrearing increase role specialization and the interdependence between marital partners (Morgan et al., 1988, p. 111). Marital partners are thus bound together by links that function not only in a brief (economic) exchange of services, but go considerably beyond, constituting the basis of "a social and moral order sui generis" (Durkheim, 1893/1984, p. …

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