As a family lawyer at a firm in Colorado, I'm often asked for my opinion on whether cohabitation is acceptable in a post-divorce situation. While this is always a matter of personal preference for divorced parents, many of my clients want definitive advice on this matter. According to the article "The Pitfalls of Cohabitation," when a parent's new partner moves in, it can be worse for children than divorce.
Why cohabitation is worse than divorce for kids
According a report authored by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project and a professor of sociology, cohabitation has replaced divorce as the biggest source of instability for American families. Mr. Wilcox has published numerous articles on parenthood, marriage and cohabitation, focusing recently on how societal changes have impacted the stability of American marriages and family life.
As most people have probably noticed, the rate of American couples who live together outside of marriage is rising dramatically. In 2010 alone it grew by 13 percent, and it has become far more socially acceptable in recent years. Wilcox's report confronts the effects of cohabitation on children and explores the risks associated with this increasingly popular alternative to marriage.
How common is cohabitation with children?
More than 40 percent of all American children will spend some time in a cohabitating household, a 12-fold increase from the 1970s, and this new report finds that kids are more likely to experience cohabitation than they are to go through a parental divorce.
The evidence suggests that the worst situation for kids is when their mother cohabits with an unrelated male boyfriend or partner. In fact, a recent study shows that children are about ten times more likely to be physically, emotionally or sexually abused in this type of arrangement than if they lived with their own married parents.
The study found that many negative outcomes persist even when children live with their own unmarried cohabitating parents, suggesting that the absence of marriage may play an even greater role than living with parent's unrelated partner. Aside from abuse, negative social, educational and psychological outcomes exist even across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
How does cohabitation compare with single parent households?
While it's true that many children who live in nontraditional families do just fine, research suggests that cohabitation actually doubles a child's risk of poor school performance, delinquency, psychological problems and drug use. And again, child abuse becomes much more common when kids live with their mother and an unrelated adult male.
When comparing Wilcox's recent report on cohabitation with his earlier report, "Why Marriage Matters," he found some striking similarities between children in biological and step-cohabitating families and those who live in single parent households. While both tend to be unstable, cohabitating relationships may be much worse because of the risk of domestic violence and their inherent lack of commitment. Needless to say, neither situation is the ideal home environment for children but the study suggests that a stable single-parent home is safer for children than living with their mother and an unrelated adult male.
Does social class correlate with cohabitation?
While it isn't specifically proven in this study, the problem of cohabitation with children does seem to be less common among middle-class, college-educated parents. There is some kind of a vicious cycle that occurs when parents put off marriage and its financial benefits.
In a report called "When Marriage Disappears," Wilcox's group found that Americans with less income and less education were far more likely to live together and have children in cohabitating households. As a result, their kids are less likely to draw on the educational and financial resources of their parents, thereby inhibiting their economic upward mobility and attainment of the American Dream. So is it reasonable to assume that the nationwide retreat from marriage is fostering more income inequality and an unstable economic future? Brad Wilcox would say yes.
How has cohabitation affected the divorce rate?
If there is one silver lining in all of these unfortunate statistics, it does seem that divorce rates among married families have declined significantly. This means that children who are born today to married parents have a better chance of growing up in an intact household than children born 40 years ago. While this is a small consolation when one considers the growing rate of cohabitation, it does offer hope for the institution of marriage.
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