The great divorce revolution of the 1960s and 1970s has faded. The great cohabitation revolution has begun.
The divorce rate for married couples with children is almost back to the levels of the early 1960s, before the run-up that crested in the early 1980s. Considering the decades of social turbulence buffeting the institution of marriage between then and now, this is a notable restoration.
But it only means that marriage is unraveling in a different way. According to a new study by the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, cohabitation has increased 14-fold since 1970. About 24 percent of children are born to cohabiting couples, more than are born to single mothers, while another 20 percent experience a cohabiting household at some time in their childhood.
On the face of it, this doesn’t seem alarming. At least there are two adults there for the kids. Except the research says it isn’t enough. 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.
We want to believe that all relationships, so long as they are loving and well-intentioned, are equal. It feels like an offense against 21st-century mores to say otherwise. Who are we to make invidious distinctions among loving adults? But there is simply no substitute for marriage, for the relative stability and commitment it provides, and for the environment it creates for children.
As a general matter, compared with married couples, people across the gamut of cohabiting relationships report “more conflict, more violence, and lower levels of satisfaction and commitment,” in the words of the National Marriage Project study. This basically holds true of unmarried biological parents who are living together. Cohabiting couples are more likely to be depressed and less likely to pool their income.
They are in altogether more tenuous relationships. Cohabiting couples with a child are more than twice as likely to break up as married parents. Only 24 percent of children of married parents experience a change in the relationship status of their mothers by age 12. The figure for the children of cohabiting couples is 65 percent.
This is especially consequential for the affected children. The study notes “an emerging scholarly consensus that family stability in and of itself is linked to positive child outcomes.” Children who experience a divorce or some other — to use the jargon — “maternal partnership transition” are more likely “to experience behavioral problems, drug use, problems in school, early sex, and loneliness.”
Our pop culture tends to celebrate what one sociologist calls “the carousel of intimate relationships” that adults are constantly hopping on and off. Although Modern Family has replaced Leave It to Beaver as the TV-sitcom paradigm of American family life, children have more trouble in complex households formed by people unrelated by birth or marriage. “Children in stepfamilies,” according to the study, “are more likely to experience school failure, delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and incarceration than children growing up in intact, married families.”
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. One of the more affecting pieces of data in this study is that fathers committed to marriage are more likely to hug their children than fathers who aren’t. One of the more disturbing is that children in cohabiting households are more likely to be abused than children in either intact, married families or single-parent families.
The advantages of marriage run much deeper than merely having two adults in the house. It is an irreplaceable source of social capital. As we move away from it and social scientists study the consequences, we learn more about why it was such a timeless institution — once upon a time.
— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.