Is Cohabitation Bad for Our Families?

New study: Cohabitation is bad for kids. But I'm not so sure.

Posted Aug 19, 2011

The National Marriage Project released a major report stating that cohabitation is the biggest threat to American children, eclipsing divorce and overshadowing single motherhood. While the study's authors, led by the University of Virginia's Brad Wilcox, admit that this is more of an issue for black and low-income families (which are more likely to have unmarried parents), the authors say that all kids "exposed to cohabitation"--as if it were a disease, or a fatal contaminant--have more emotional problems, less involved and less affectionate fathers, a greater risk of school failure, a higher risk of infant mortality, and worse physical health than kids with married parents. That's despite economics, class, or race.

"Cohabitation is not a functional equivalent of marriage," the study claims. And as Wilcox said at an event last night at the Institute for American Values, where he discussed the study, "cohabitation and kids don't mix."

In an interview this morning, I asked Wilcox how my kid--the daughter of married parents--will fare compared to the children of my unmarried friends. He told me that my daughter will always know that her parents made a commitment to each other, and transversely, to her, and that society lauds that commitment. Her friends with cohabitating parents will never have that stability, the assurance of that socially accepted bond.

Philosophically, I want to disagree with him. But doesn't he also have a point? My 3-year-old is already fascinated by who is married and who isn't and what it means. I must have been, too, to some extent--I was a reluctant bride, but I've worn a wedding ring for almost a decade. Sure, my partner and I co-parent, my work takes equal precedence, and our partnership has about as much gender parity as I can imagine. But I still bought the dress and got hitched. People say getting married requires strength, but I think it may have been the wimpiest thing I've ever done. Perhaps I'm one of the many people who, as University of Pennsylvania professor Amy Wax put it at last night's event, could be accused of "thinking the '60s, but living the '50s."

And despite my intellectual resistance to the data in the new report, when I read through it, I feel anxiety. The data on cohabitating parents depict a world no one would want for her child: a world where fathers don't hug, kids don't graduate, already sensitive adolescent psyches are further strained, and it's harder to negotiate one's own safety and mores. The study reminds us that children fare worse in complex arrangements--cohabitation included--in which roles feel undefined and accountability may be weak.

I'm currently researching a book on only children and have come across a great deal of analysis on how children growing up in non-normative family structures are made to feel like outsiders. I can't help but wonder if the psychological stress of being raised by cohabiting parents is akin to the experience of being an (oft-stereotyped) only child, at least in the upper economic brackets. In Sweden, where it's become normal to parent without a marriage certificate, kids with unmarried parents don't feel this way. But here, as long as marriage is worshipped, supported by friends and family and strangers and the state, as long as kids who are inside a married family know that they are what's normal and that those other kids aren't, there will be distress. Nobody wants to feel like his or her family is an experiment. Or that other people get to be supported by stability they are lacking.

This doesn't mean that in re-forming our notion of partnership we have to revert to the marriages of the '50s, as was implied in much of last night's discussion (in front of an audience that applauded when "the edu-crats" were lambasted for teaching sex ed). Instead, we need to re-norm healthy partnerships. Just as so many of us have learned to make marriages work without the support of a religious community, we can probably manage partnerships without a wedding. But the study is clear about one thing, which I have to square emotionally, and you might too: We're not there yet, and my marriage, strong and seemingly progressive as it is, may not be helping to re-norm a damn thing.

Copyright Lauren Sandler