Julie Hanlon Rubio on Why Marriage Matters: Children Born to Cohabitating Parents Are at Risk
Dr. Rubio is one of our new correspondents at Catholicmoraltheology.com. We are pleased she is taking the time to join in the ongoing conversations.
A new study put out by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values calls attention to the rise in children being raised by single parents, including those who are cohabiting with a partner. (Full disclosure: I have been a consultant for other reports issued by these groups.) As NPR reported this week, 41 percent of all babies are born to unwed mothers and that number continues to rise.
This is cause for concern because children born to cohabiting couples experience more instability in their lives and that affects them negatively. Sociologist Andrew Cherlin recently pointed out in The Marriage Go-Round that American adults often change partners several times (i.e., they cohabitate, have a child, break up, date, cohabitate, marry, divorce, etc.). Cherlin claims that adults have an obligation to reduce this kind of instability for sake of their children.
The authors of Why Marriage Matters agree, pointing to higher levels of “externalizing disorders” such as aggression and “internalizing disorders ” like depression in children of cohabiting couples.
In their recent pastoral letter on marriage, the U.S. Catholic bishops named cohabitation as one of four threats to marriage and continued to call attention to sociological studies like this one that document the negative effects of cohabitation on children as well as the overwhelming data showing that couples who cohabitate are twice as likely to divorce.
It is important to bring some nuance to these findings. The NPR story quotes family historian Stephanie Coontz who, like many more liberal family scholars, focuses on the economic reasons for the increase in childbearing outside of marriage (primarily lack of stable employment for working class men). Those who cohabit are not necessarily less devoted to marriage; they just don’t think they’re ready for it.
It is also true, as Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman point out in The Sexual Person, that cohabitation among stable young adults who are planning to marry differs from cohabitation among their less economically secure peers. Most educated, middle class couples eventually marry, even if they do cohabitate first, and they are less likely to have children before they walk down the aisle.
Still, given that Catholics cohabitate at the same rate as other Americans, the pastoral challenge is twofold: (1) Help couples see that though cohabitation seems like a good way to make sure marriage is the right choice, it is associated with a greater risk of divorce as well as negative effects on children. (2) Commit to economic policies that increase job creation, especially for working class men who have been left out of a changing global economy.
In U.S., we are not yet in the situation of Catholics in Europe, where long-term cohabitation is becoming almost as normal as marriage, but we need to seize this opportunity to talk about the value of marriage as a covenant in which we say to children, “No matter what happens, we’ll be here for you.”