Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Cyclical Cohabitation among Unmarried Parents in Fragile Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Cyclical Cohabitation among Unmarried Parents in Fragile Families

Article excerpt

Building on past research suggesting that cohabitation is an ambiguous family form, the authors examined an understudied residential pattern among unmarried parents: cyclical cohabitation, in which parents have multiple cohabitation spells with each other. Using 9 years of panel data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (N = 2,084), they found that 10% of all parents with nonmarital births and nearly a quarter of those living together when the child is 9years old are cyclical cohabitors. Cyclically cohabiting mothers reported more material hardships than mothers in most other relationship patterns but also reported more father involvement with children. On all measures of child well-being except grade retention, children of cyclically cohabiting parents fared no worse than children of stably cohabiting biological parents and did not differ significantly from any other group.

Key Words: child outcomes, cohabiting parents, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, living arrangements, nonmarital parenting, parenting.

For many years, family scholars interested in the effects of family structure focused primarily on the effects of divorce on women and children and on comparisons of child outcomes in biological parent households, divorced families, stepfamilies, and never-married families. The realization that children living in stepfamilies often fared no better than children living with never-married mothers or with unpartnered divorced mothers led to a growing interest in the role of family structure transitions on children. Furthermore, the tremendous increase in nonmarital childbearing and recognition that many unwed fathers are often living with their children, or at least regularly involved with them, has focused attention on the increasing complexity of family forms, including ambiguous residential statuses and multipartner fertility.

Our research contributes to the exploration of increasing complexity in family arrangements and on their importance in shaping children's experiences. In this article, we identify cyclical cohabitors-biological parents exhibiting multiple cohabitation transitions with each other-as an understudied residential pattern, estimate their prevalence, describe their characteristics, and assess associations between this type of residential pattern and child well-being outcomes.


Rates of nonmarital childbearing have increased tremendously in the United States in the last 50 years. Over 40% of births in the United States are now to unmarried parents (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2010), and the consequences of these trends for women and children have been extensively documented (see McLanahan, 2004). What the last decade or so of ethnographic and quantitative research has made clear, however, is that the relationships and circumstances of parents with nonmarital births are quite diverse. In fact, more than half (58%) of these parents are cohabiting at birth (Child Trends, 2012; Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Furthermore, many unmarried parents remain involved with each other for some time after the birth, and many nonresidential fathers, even those no longer romantically involved with their child's mother, remain involved with their children (Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004; Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Edin & Lein, 1997; McLanahan & Beck, 2010; Nepomnyaschy & Garfinkel, 2007). The continued involvement of fathers together with a high prevalence of multipartner fertility among unmarried parents (Cancian & Meyer, 2005; Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006) has justifiably refocused attention from simple categorizations of families as intact or not to the determinants and consequences of relationship dynamics.

In addition to the descriptive research documenting the recent evolution of families, two lines of existing empirical research and several family theories guide the organization of our analyses. The first line of research focuses on the effects of family change and instability on individual and family well-being. …

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