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Unmarried parents more common now than divorced parents: are unmarried, cohabitating parents detrimental to children?

Mother, father, and child.
Mother, father, and child.

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It used to be divorce that everyone was worried about. But divorce rates are down: now, according to a new report, children are more likely to have unmarried parents than divorced ones. Are unmarried parents who live together the new risk to children? The University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values say yes; their recent report states that the number of American parents who are cohabitating but not married has increased twelvefold since the 1970s. The report’s data, which comes from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey of Family Growth, states that 42% of children had unmarried, cohabitating parents by age 12 while only 24% had divorced parents. The report went further to cite studies that assert that children with unmarried, cohabitating parents perform worse in school and have more psychological problems (Journal of Marriage and Family and Sociology of Education). Even further, it cites a 2010 report on child abuse that found that 57.2 of 1,000 children with an unmarried partner were abused while only 6.8 of 1,000 children with married parents were abused (federal Department of Health and Human Services).

Where are we seeing cohabitating parents? W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, explains that the number of cohabitating parents began to quickly increase in poor communities in the late 1960s. Now, the phenomenon has moved to lower-middle-class families, with out-of-wedlock births among high-school-educated women up from 5% in 1982 to 34% in the 2000s. But Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, does not agree that marriage will help keep these parents together or that parents cohabitating without marrying hurts children. Coontz has researched families of the 1960s and found unhappy married couples who married because it was expected and ultimately did more damage to their children than unmarried couples do today. Does marriage help keep a couple together? Is there a reason—economic, philosophical or otherwise—to not get married? Does it make a difference to the child if her parents are married?


W. Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., director, National Marriage Project; associate professor, Sociology, University of Virginia

Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families; professor of History and Family Studies at Evergreen State College; author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s; Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage; and others