Cohabitation Less Stable for Families Than Marriage Worldwide, Though More Doing It

By Collins, Lois M. | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), December 26, 2018 | Go to article overview

Cohabitation Less Stable for Families Than Marriage Worldwide, Though More Doing It


Collins, Lois M., Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


Parents who want their children to enjoy the benefits of a stable childhood should marry rather than cohabit, according to a just-released analysis that looks at cohabitation versus marriage in terms of stability over a child's first 12 years in more than 60 countries.

The findings are part of the 2017 World Family Map, released Sunday by the Institute for Family Studies and the Social Trends Institute.

The report's main essay, "The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe," reports that American and European children whose parents were living together but not married at the time of their birth are by age 12 vastly more likely to see the parents split. And the report says marriage is more powerfully associated with stability for kids than is a parent's level of education.

Some experts have suggested that as cohabitation becomes more common, the differences between marriage and cohabitation and how they impact children will level off. Looking at countries where cohabitation is more ingrained, as it is in Europe, the study authors conclude that's not the case.

"In more than 60 countries, we see that the rise in cohabitation is linked to an increase in family instability for children," said IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, study co-author and sociology professor at the University of Virginia. "It suggests there's something about marriage as an institution that signals commitment."

"The instability gap doesn't depend on the level of cohabitation in a country," added Laurie DeRose, director of research for the World Family Map and sociology professor at Georgetown University, also a lead author. "People suggest that those who cohabit become more like married couples, they become less distinct. But we showed in terms of outcome for kids, it doesn't happen. Cohabiting is still more unstable for kids, even in countries where it's more common."

Family structure vs. education

In the U.S. and 17 European countries, children born to cohabiting couples are 96 percent more likely to see their parents split by the time they are 12, compared to those who were born to married couples. In those same countries, highly educated cohabiters who had kids were more likely to break up than married parents who had less education.

U.S. researchers have noted clear education-attainment differences in how families form. Well-educated couples tend to marry first and have kids deliberately, compared to cohabiters. But the World Map report finds family structure is more important to stability than education, after looking here and elsewhere.

"Cohabiting relationships are indeed much more stable in Europe. Even so, European cohabiting relationships are more likely to break up than European marriages," said sociologist Andrew Cherlin, director of the Program on Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved with the research. "I can't vouch for the 90 percent figure, but there is a difference. And I would agree that family structure is more important than education in explaining the difference."

The research also found that in 68 countries where it's increasingly common for children to be born to cohabiting couples, the researchers found an association with increased family instability for kids.

The United Kingdom has "some of the highest levels of family instability in the Northern Hemisphere," the report said, with a third of kids not living with both biological parents. It said children born to cohabiting parents there are "94 percent more likely to see their parents break up before age 12," compared to those whose parents were married at their birth. …

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