Not Crossing the "Extra Line": How Cohabitors with Children View Their Unions

By Reed, Joanna M. | Journal of Marriage and Family, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Not Crossing the "Extra Line": How Cohabitors with Children View Their Unions


Reed, Joanna M., Journal of Marriage and Family


I use qualitative interview data from a sample of 44 cohabiting couples who have children together to investigate how they view their unions and how the presence of children influences the meanings they attach to them. I find most cohabiting parents begin cohabiting in response to a pregnancy but do not believe they should stay in a relationship because of shared children. They view cohabitation as a practical response to parenthood that allows them to coparent and share expenses yet avoid the greater expectations of commitment, relationship quality, and more traditional and scripted family roles they associate with marriage. Cohabiting parents do not believe they should marry because they have a child together but value the symbolic aspects of marriage.

Key Words: cohabitation, marriage, nonmarital births, parenthood.

Cohabitation has become an important context for bearing and raising children in the United States. Births to unmarried cohabiting women account for almost all the increase in nonmarital childbearing over the past two decades (Bumpass & Lu, 2000), and the proportion of children born to cohabiting parents has more than doubled since the 1980s, from 6% of births to about 15% in 2000 (Fragile Families Research Brief, 2005). Over the same period, births to married parents have declined (Ventura & Bachrach, 2000). Despite the increasing prevalence of cohabitation as a family status, there is still much to learn about the nature of relationships between cohabiting parents.

Although cohabitation has become more common for individuals among all stages of the life course (Casper & Bianchi, 2002; Heuveline & Timberlake, 2004), having children while cohabiting is associated with socioeconomic disadvantage (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Manning, 2001). Also, cohabiting parents' relationships do not last as long as those of married parents, putting their children at a higher risk for poverty and multiple family transitions (Graefe & Lichter, 1999; Manning, 2001). Together, these factors have raised concerns about how life in a cohabiting family affects the well-being of children.

It is difficult to explain or assess these trends, however, without more insight into the nature of cohabiting families and the meanings these relationships hold for individuals who undertake and experience them. This study uses qualitative interview data from a sample of cohabiting parents to address two questions: (a) how do cohabiting parents view their unions? and (b) how does the presence of children influence what cohabitation means to them? In-depth understanding of parent cohabitors' relationships can help explain demographic trends by illuminating individuals' motivations for action and the processes by which they make decisions about their relationships. Because of their status as parents, we might expect parent cohabitors to see their relationships differently from cohabitors without children. For example, children may increase the bond between parents (Seltzer, 2000), encourage parents to cohabit or marry to secure economic resources for their children, or increase the emotional and financial costs of ending a relationship (Graefe & Lichter, 1999).

Past research on the meanings of cohabitation and unmarried parents falls short in providing the details needed to understand the relationships of cohabiting parents. Most research on cohabitation is based on quantitative studies that compare general populations of cohabitors to married and single individuals. Several recent qualitative studies have begun in-depth investigations into the nature of cohabiting relationships and the relationships of unmarried parents (Gibson-Davis, Edin, & McLanahan, 2005; Porter, Manning, & Smock, 2004; Sassler, 2004; Smock, Manning, & Porter, 2005). The present study is an attempt to bridge these two literatures. About half of the children of unmarried parents live in a cohabiting family (McLanahan et al. …

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