Does Marriage Matter?: A look on how cohabitation affects the children involved.


With 50% of marriages ending in divorce, it is understandable why couples in an exclusive relationship would prefer to cohabit, that is live together in the same residence for an extended period of time. Myself being unwed, can relate to the benefits of sharing a living space with a significant other as “practice” for married life without the concern of combining incomes and assets. In the past three decades the amount of cohabiting couples has grown, not to mention its social acceptance. As time goes by, millions of adults seem to enjoy the freedom and flexibility that this phenomenon provides.

However, there is a debate that cohabitation is harmful for the children produced by these unions. A recent NY Times written by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, exposes that children raised by cohabiting parents are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, use drugs, or be diagnosed with depression, compared with children of married adults. According to a recent federal report they are additionally three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused. Why is cohabitation so harmful for children? The answer is that in contrast with legal marriage, cohabitation often provides less commitment, stability, and fidelity to romantic partners and their children. Research shows cohabiting couples are more than twice as likely to break up and four times more likely to be unfaithful to one another, compared with married couples, thus having a negative impact and unhealthy influence on the children in these homes.

Another NY Times article by Cornell Professor Sharon Sassler states numerous studies have found that children do less well on a variety of outcomes when raised by cohabiting parents versus married couples. Sassler attributes this to the fact that cohabiting families are frequently less stable than married couple families. Social science findings point that children benefit economically, psychologically, socially from being raised by two parents who are married.

Obviously there are cohabiting relationships that last for decades if not a lifetime. Still this longevity is the exception rather than the rule. The more socially acceptable it is for parents to cohabit, the less likely they are to be married. “Unsurprisingly, children born to cohabiting parents are more than twice as likely as those born to married parents to endure the disruption of their parents’ relationship, and the [aforementioned] economic, social and psychological hardship that often results” declares Ralph Richard Banks, Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. Many are concerned that the more cohabitation becomes the norm, the less it will mark the sort of unstable parental relationships that imperil children’s well-being. “If marriage lost its longstanding cultural cachet, fewer couples would aspire to marriage, and the institution would no longer reliably differentiate between the more and less committed, or between better and worse relationships.” Ibid.

Nonetheless, it is vital to acknowledged that the most important factor children benefit from is their parents’ love and support, whether or not the parents are not married. From an aggregated perspective, it is just as important parents are devoted to their offspring than they are to a state-sanctioned partnership.