Parents who want their children to enjoy the benefits of a stable childhood should marry rather than cohabit, according to a just-released analysis that looks at cohabitation versus marriage in terms of stability over a child's first 12 years in more than 60 countries.
The findings are part of the 2017 World Family Map, released Sunday by the Institute for Family Studies and the Social Trends Institute.
The report's main essay, "The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe," reports that American and European children whose parents were living together but not married at the time of their birth are by age 12 vastly more likely to see the parents split. And the report says marriage is more powerfully associated with stability for kids than is a parent's level of education.
Some experts have suggested that as cohabitation becomes more common, the differences between marriage and cohabitation and how they impact children will level off. Looking at countries where cohabitation is more ingrained, as it is in Europe, the study authors conclude that's not the case.
"In more than 60 countries, we see that the rise in cohabitation is linked to an increase in family instability for children," said IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, study co-author and sociology professor at the University of Virginia. "It suggests there's something about marriage as an institution that signals commitment."
"The instability gap doesn't depend on the level of cohabitation in a country," added Laurie DeRose, director of research for the World Family Map and sociology professor at Georgetown University, also a lead author. "People suggest that those who cohabit become more like married couples, they become less distinct. But we showed in terms of outcome for kids, it doesn't happen. Cohabiting is still more unstable for kids, even in countries where it's more common."
Family structure vs. education
In the U.S. and 17 European countries, children born to cohabiting couples are 96 percent more likely to see their parents split by the time they are 12, compared to those who were born to married couples. In those same countries, highly educated cohabiters who had kids were more likely to break up than married parents who had less education.
U.S. researchers have noted clear education-attainment differences in how families form. Well-educated couples tend to marry first and have kids deliberately, compared to cohabiters. But the World Map report finds family structure is more important to stability than education, after looking here and elsewhere.
"Cohabiting relationships are indeed much more stable in Europe. Even so, European cohabiting relationships are more likely to break up than European marriages," said sociologist Andrew Cherlin, director of the Program on Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved with the research. "I can't vouch for the 90 percent figure, but there is a difference. And I would agree that family structure is more important than education in explaining the difference."
The research also found that in 68 countries where it's increasingly common for children to be born to cohabiting couples, the researchers found an association with increased family instability for kids.
The United Kingdom has "some of the highest levels of family instability in the Northern Hemisphere," the report said, with a third of kids not living with both biological parents. It said children born to cohabiting parents there are "94 percent more likely to see their parents break up before age 12," compared to those whose parents were married at their birth.
Chaos and change
Although percentages differ from place to place, the "relative stability doesn't vary much. Cohabitation is twice as fragile as marriage; it's much more uniform than you would expect. Even in Latin America, where cohabitation coexists alongside marriage and is a longstanding cultural alternative, it's still more fragile," DeRose told the Deseret News.
DeRose concedes that children born of cohabiting unions may benefit in countries where cohabitation is increasingly common. Their families may be less stigmatized, she said, and countries where cohabitation is more entrenched may afford those children more relative stability; those cohabiting parents are more likely to stay together than they are in the United States.
Experts agree that kids thrive when their family life is stable. When life is full of transitions, things start to unravel for kids. "Everything else being equal, stability is an important predictor of kids' emotional, social and physical well-being," Wilcox said.
The issues transition from one relationship to the next, which are brutal for children. "Social science research emphasizes that union formation is hard on kids, too," said DeRose. "Breakups are hard, formation is hard. It's churning that's bad for kids — disruptions in family life and family structure."
Boys and girls show different effects. For boys, relationship transitions can show up as delinquent behavior and substance abuse, compared to more sexuality in girls, said DeRose, who noted a variety of challenges for both boys and girls when their childhoods are unstable.
"The weight of evidence showing that instability is bad for kids and their outcomes is incontrovertible," noted Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who was not involved in the study. "The debate now is what predicts and supports that stability."
Concepts bandied about to answer that question — including structure, economic and other resources, education, whether one planned to have kids — are intertwined to the point he deems it "very, very hard to unpack" causation. Sorting it out is complicated by the variation even within groups, though married couples have fewer variations than cohabiters.
What's your plan?
Some experts, including Reeves, caution against assigning all the credit or blame for stability in kids' lives to family structure.
Reeves cites age and "intendedness of the pregnancy" as two factors impacting the relationship between structure and stability. In America, cohabiting parents are younger than even single parents and somewhat less educated. Reeves said it's also known that most births to cohabiting couples are unintended, while most pregnancies for married couples are intentional.
"What we're saying I think to some extent here is that cohabitation as a structure is an expression of unintendeness in moving into parenting in the first place," he added. "So even behind a finding like this, you see there's other stuff to eliminate."
Many social science questions can be answered through randomized, controlled studies, but not this one. One cannot randomly assign a child's birth into a family structure, said Reeves.
He credits the new study with advancing understanding of the relationships between stability and structure but cautioned against telling someone who didn't wait until married to have kids that it is too late. Children need stability and all families can work on that.
"Helping as many people as possible to create the condition for stability is a major role for public policy," said Reeves.