Cohabitation Harms Children - and Future Family Strength

The University of Virginia's National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, directed by Professor Brad Wilcox, issued a report in August week titled "Why Marriage Matters." This report determines that children living in cohabiting households don't do as well socially, educationally or psychologically as children living in intact married households. The study says that based on empirical evidence, cohabitation harms children. See the full article by Rob Hagy at http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/WMM_summary.pdf.

The research specifically revealed that "the children of cohabiting parents are at risk for a broad range of problems, from trouble in school to psychological stress, physical abuse and poverty, reported NPR's Jennifer Ludden. "Wilcox says the children of the divorce revolution grew up to be understandably gun shy about marriage. Many are putting it off, even after they have kids. But research shows such couples are twice as likely to split. 'Ironically,' he says, 'they're likely to experience even more instability than they would [have] if they had taken the time and effort to move forward slowly and get married before starting a family'." Read or listen to the full National Public Radio report at: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/16/139651077/study-are-cohabiting-parents-bad-for-kids.

Cohabitation may also be making marriage an imperiled institution, according to a July 3 New York Times article, as "marriage today reflects several 20th century shifts of extraordinary implications," detailing how children are not necessarily part of the American family assumption - a "colossal shift." (You can read that entire piece by Mark Regnerus at http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/07/03/marriage-the-next-chapter/marriage-an-imperiled-institution.) These factors may also be contributing to plummeting US birthrates. According to a USA Today analysis of the 2010 Census, the "share of the population under age 18 dropped in 95% of U.S. counties since 2000... despite a 9.7% growth in the U.S. population." (You can read that article at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/census/2011-06-03-fewer-children-census-suburbs_n.htm.)

Kids seem to pay the price for the cohabiting revolution. A good summary of these facts by Chuck Colson can be found at http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/the-cohabitation-revolution-kids-pay-the-price/. He makes some strong arguments for the reasons for family instability, and how they harm kids.

"...[A]bout 24 percent of children are born to cohabiting couples today. Meanwhile, another 20 percent are part of a cohabiting household at some point during their growing-up years. That means nearly half of all American children have lived in a home where the adults are merely living together rather than married.

Today's advocates of "modern family structure" will tell you that this is no big deal, that having a wedding ring is overrated. The kids, they say, will do fine either way. Well, the fact is, an intact marriage puts children way ahead of children in other types of households. National Review editor Rich Lowry, who labels the current trend a "cohabitation revolution," notes, "Children in cohabiting households tend to lag children in intact married families on key social indicators and are not much better off than children in single-parent families."

Those who are part of cohabiting households, according to the study, report "more conflict, more violence, and lower levels of satisfaction and commitment." Children in such situations face real emotional and physical risks.

Jennifer Roback Morse of the National Organization for Marriage reports that children living with their mother and a live-in boyfriend are 33 times more likely to be abused than those living with their biological married parents. Also, children in households with unrelated adults are 50 times more likely to die from inflicted injuries, compared with children living with both biological parents.

Despite all the well-reported problems of marriage these days, cohabiting relationships are frequently less stable, as well. Lowry says that cohabiting couples with a child are more than twice as likely to break up as married parents. That's a huge difference. Lowry says, "Children turn out to benefit from the structure, rituals, and identity that come with a lasting marriage between their parents. And the very act of committing to the norms of marriage makes adults better marital partners and parents."

So why is marriage held in such low regard today, to the point that some people are willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of convenience? Well, one reason might be is that they have not seen what a good marriage looks like. Defending marriage involves more than just talk. Are we Christians committed to showing our neighbors the love, fidelity, and joy that ought to accompany a marriage founded on God and His plan for human flourishing? ...when is the last time you heard your pastor give a sermon on the dangers of cohabitation? Is your church doing all it can to prepare young couples for marriage and to help struggling marriages?

If not, then all our advocacy for the importance of marriage is likely to fall on deaf ears. And our nation's children will be the losers for it."

In light of these facts, what should a pastor today do when a cohabitating couple asks him to perform their marriage ceremony?  See the answers and Professor Kohm's remarks to this at ChristianityToday.com.

Alarms are sounding on behalf of children over cohabitation and family instability. Family restoration is a great solution to provide kids with a safer and more stable childhood. Adults may want to think twice before sacrificing their children's best interests on the altar of convenient cohabitation.

[Special thanks to Regent alum Mr. Gilbert Berger, Esq., Berger Law Office, Culpeper, VA, for the research contributing to this post.]


  1. This article made me think of a one of my students that was arrested on a drug charge at 14. Shortly after his arrest he came back to school. I had a chance to ask him about what had happened. I’ll never forget a comment he made at the start of the story. The student told me, “My mom always said I’d end up a criminal.” This absolutely shocked me. She generally would make a comment like the above frequently. I have since come to the conclusion that my student headed down the wrong path, due to the fact that he did not have a family situation that provided the love and support required. He picked up on the way his mother felt about him…which in turn became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    You might be asking…what in the world does this have to do with cohabitation. So, let me tell you. As a special education teacher, I spent a great deal of my time studying human behavior. I learned a great deal about how important social norms are to society and to the development of children. One time I actually was assigned a project where I had to break a social norm in a public setting and write a paper on my observations. An example given was to go to the grocery store and try to bargain with the cashier to raise the price. It sounded like it would be fun, but ended up being very uncomfortable for me and everyone that was involved.

    My uncomfortable experience only lasted for about fifteen minutes…if that. For a child growing up in a family with cohabitating parents it is an everyday occurrence that lasts for years. It does not surprise me that children from cohabitating parents are having such difficulties in school and experiencing developmental problems. Like my student, they are unable to benefit from a home environment that provides the structure and stability they need to be successful. The message that they get from their parents is that my individual needs are more important than family, and I’d prefer to have an easy way out. How can a child feel loved if their parents are unwilling to make a commitment to each other (or the child) that says that I will be here for you as long as I shall live?

    People may argue that a wedding ring is overrated, or that words don’t mean much. But we must ask ourselves, “What do they mean to the children involved?” The words, “You’ll end up a criminal” ended up meaning a great deal to my student. It also appears from the statistics from this article that a ring means a great deal to the children involved as well. What a wedding ring means to a child is that 1) my parents love each other, 2) love last a life time, 3) I will always have a place to go where I’m loved, 4) I have the lifelong stability I need from my parents in order to live a safe and successful life.


  2. I think you hit on a key point why cohabitation is so highly preferred by couples of this current generation and that is that their parents marriage was not one they wanted to model their lives after. Growing up out of all my friends, my parents and one other family I knew were the only married couples I still knew. All of my other friends their parents were divorced. With my parents marriage, I knew they loved each other but they constantly fought and then got divorced my freshman year of college. The other marriages I saw people were married but they didn't seem to be enjoying life together. The fact that marriage has such a negative image is why so many young people are not rushing into it. There is a part of every man or woman that they innately know that marriage is what is best for them, but there is also a fear of failure and so we rationalize that living together is okay because that way we can test out marriage. In the meanwhile, we are sabotaging any future marriage we might have. My prayer is that this generation of Christians who are married make it their mission to let other people see that marriage is a great thing. That we invite singles to be a part of our lives to see how marriage works and why God created marriage to create security in families. Ultimately that we fight to keep our marriages together no matter what. Cohabitation is just another ploy of the enemy to keep men and women from realizing God's best for them and experiencing the blessing of marriage. -Hannah Carter

  3. There's a subtle connection between the idea of cohabitation and Social Darwinism in that persons, and especially parents, who cohabit are practicing this idea mentioned above of "testing marriage out"; if one or both partners discovers that this isn't "The One," then the relationship should end, and inadvertently, a new partner should be sought. This is a potentially, and perhaps likely, cyclical process. As the articles above conclude, this is the most unstable environment for the self and especially for children. This seemingly points to the ultimate conclusions that for all persons (non-parents, parents and children as individuals), the most important person is the self, and "my rights" are to be honored above others. However, this is also simultaneously contrary to basic Darwinistic theories in that the individuals, and especially the progeny, are not enabled for successful survival, but rather disabled by self-promoting actions, as seen from the data on negative emotional, physical and psychological effects. Ultimately, we humans are not animals, and because our actions have lasting effects on those around us, we are held accountable for more than simply ourselves. As a society, we have to escape from this individualistic and self-promoting mindset, and return to the family as a stable unit as a platform for a higher purpose than mere self-satisfaction or survival.

  4. This article has many valid points. I do agree with the point that a two parent family provides a much more conducive environment for a child to thrive. However, I can understand the growing trend of choosing cohabitation prior to marriage. Particularly, when children are not involved in the relationship. The divorce rates have consistently climbed to a point where you are more likely to divorce than stay married. I feel over time, generations have seen the destruction of divorce in their own families and are trying different approaches such as cohabitation to avoid a future divorce. While the statistics in this article construe that cohabitation actually increases your likelihood of divorce, I don't feel it accurately depicts the number of divorces it prevents. I do agree that having children out of wedlock is not in the best interest of the children and should be strongly discouraged. I personally have witnessed a number of couples who thought they wished to be married, but after cohabitation, realized they would not be successful in marriage together. Of those couples I have seen them since get married and are still married currently. I know these accounts are not conclusive evidence that cohabitation can strengthen marriage, but I do not feel these statistics above can rule out all merit of cohabitation. I feel the positive and negative effects of cohabitation can only be fairly assessed on a situational basis and that broad sweeping statistics do not accurately reflect its effectiveness.