A different state of the union

Family dynamics are changing not just in the U.S. but globally in a number of ways. Fewer parents are marrying before having children. The roles of fathers play out in a variety of relationship contexts—in marriage, in non-marital cohabitation, in visiting relationships, or outside of a romantic relationship with a child’s mother. More fathers—about 20% in the U.S.—are the primary caregivers of a child under five years of age. Amidst all of the change, it’s time to take a pulse of the state of the reproductive union and its relationship to father involvement. A good place to do that is in a new article published by Lauren Rinelli McClain and Alfred DeMaris in the journal, “Fathering.”

This article draws upon the U.S. “Fragile Families Study,” which began around 2000 with nearly 5000 families considered at risk (e.g., with the majority having children born outside of marriage). The study both investigated how consistent union states (e.g., non-marital cohabitation throughout) and changes in union status (e.g., from a visiting relationship to marriage) were related to a standardized measure of father involvement among around 4300 men. The data were taken from times when a couple’s child was 1, 3 and 5 years of age. A special aspect of the study is that the data were longitudinal. The authors adjusted for various potential confounding variables such as paternal age. What did they find?

One surprise was that fathers in non-marital coresidential relationships across those three time points showed higher father involvement than the other union states, including marriage. However, consistent with earlier work, fathers in visiting or non-romantic relationships throughout reported lower father involvement than married or unmarried coresidential fathers. As far as changes in union status, fathers showed lower father involvement if they shifted from cohabiting to non-cohabiting unions, and between visiting and nonromantic relationships. There were also interactions across time in which fathers showed marked decreases in involvement if changing from married to not married, and increases in involvement if shifting from visiting or nonromantic relationships to marriage.

An overarching perspective on these data is the importance of conceptualizing father involvement from the standpoint of union status. Humans tend to reproduce within long-term relationships such as marriage, a notable contrast with the reproductive behavior of, say, chimpanzees and bonobos bearing young in multi-male, multi-female social groups. The structure of a relationship with a child’s mother—formalized by married or characterized by separation and a lack of romance—can also structure a man’s paternal engagement. He may live apart from his former lover, but also the child of their former love. Changes in union status—leaving a marital relationship or entering a coresidential one—also lead to changes in father involvement. Or a father may have greater access to his child in a coresidential relationship, whether in marriage or not. As the authors of this paper note, “[T]he quality of a father’s bond with the child’s mother is a powerful determinant of his commitment to fathering.” (p. 201)

Why were cohabiting, unmarried unions associated with higher father involvement than marriage? As the authors note, they do not advocate that married couples divorce under the thought that will somehow enhance father engagement. Instead, this may be a marker of important shifts in the ways cohabitation and marriage are viewed. Marriage is expensive, as anyone who has contemplated a guest list and wedding reception recently has recognized. With perhaps diminishing social influence of other family members and friends to push for marriage, more couples may opt to delay or forego marriage altogether. The authors note, “[R]esearch has shown that cohabiting fathers may be less traditional and more egalitarian than marrieds and thus may display a higher level of involvement.” (p. 215) These may be just a few of the reasons why cohabiting fathers displayed higher levels of parental involvement than married fathers.

In summary, both union status and changes in union status were related to father involvement in the Fragile Families study. The relationship with a child's mother plays a major role in structuring paternal involvement.


McClain, L. R., & DeMaris, A. (2013). A better deal for cohabiting fathers? Union status differences in father involvement. Fathering, 11, 199-220.   

About the Authors

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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