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.”
Julie, Thanks for your post, and I look forward to your future contributions!
I’m wondering if your sources look at other social factors that increase instability for children, since it seems to me that poverty is the bigger threat to flourishing. If we have a more detailed portrait of the choices that a poor mother faces, she might decide to co-habit with a male partner precisely because she thinks it will bring more stability for her children than going it alone. I think there are some class and racial/ethnic lines here that are unexplored. What do you think?
No disrespect meant in the least, but is there anything really to be done besides hand wringing? I’ve been defending same-sex marriage on First Things, and one sometimes gets the impression that those in favor of “traditional” morality believe that if only they can somehow stop same-sex marriage, all will be well. But if by some miracle, all of the gay people in the world disappeared today, the problems of heterosexual sex and marriage would change not at all. All the trends toward abortion, out-of-wedlock births, decline of monogamy, cohabitation, and contraception (whether you’re against it or for it) began decades before anyone ever dreamed same-sex marriage would become a reality anywhere.
Julie– Great to have you on board here, highlighting such a crucial issue!
I think Emily’s comment points rightly to the complicated character of the situation, especially the racial and ethnic components (the percentage for out-of-wedlock boirths is substantially higher in Hispanic and Afterican-American contexts). As Julie points out, many folks feel that they “not ready yet” for marriage, due to their economic situation. David McCarthy, in his essay on cohabitation in the Leaving and Coming Home volume, talked about how marriage has become a kind of “capstone” – something you do when everything else in your life is in place – rather than more of a foundational relationship, which facilitates other life steps, and which in turn is facilitated by and supported by a larger community. This change in perception particularly disadvantages those who are already disadvantaged economically/professionally, and I find it hard to think that it does not also encourage an irresponsibility and reluctance to commit on the part of the male partner.
David Nickol, I think, rightly suggests that all of this can collapse into a kind of “moralizing,” especially when particular issues (i.e. SSM) are made to bear an unreasonable amount of weight in defending marriage. But I would also resist any sense of “sociological fatalism” in reading the trends. Abortions are flat, perhaps slightly downward. Divorce is certainly down from a higher peak around 1980. The fact is, many of these social trends changed dramatically in the course of a relatively short time, and there is no reason why one could not see changes again. Granted, I’m not PREDICTING a change in the trends (nor am I endorsing a silver-bullet solution on a single issue – the horse is definitely out of the barn). But these issues are complex, and American society has proven challenging to predict on these matters (e.g. the failure to “secularize,” to the extent that Europe has).
Emily, thanks for raising questions about how class and race/ethnicity play in here. Many sociologists now talk about two marriage cultures in the U.S. The upper classes go to college, marry later, and wait until after marriage for children. Their marriages are more stable and their children reap the benefits of both economic security and family stability. Working class men and women, as David suggests, are more likely to wait for marriage but not childbearing and this makes their already precarious situation worse. Although there is ongoing debate among social scientists about how much of the problem is marriage and how much is poverty, the best studies (including the one I’ve cited above) include controls for race and economics and still find instability in the home to be damaging to children.
David Nickols suggests that we may not be able to do anything about the cohab trend, and I would agree that it is not going to disappear. Along with David Cloutier, however, I believe that publicizing negative effects can influence behavior here, as it has in other cases. Even sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who criticizes those who simplistically advocate a return to traditional values, thinks it is worth it to encourage parents to limit the number of partners they bring into their children’s lives.
As a moral theologian, I want to aim a little higher. I hope Catholics can bring to public dialogue the idea that advocating for jobs and just wages is pro-family. In our schools and parishes, I hope we can avoid moralizing. Instead, I’d like to see honest and inspiring conversation about the goods of marriage.