As more and more U.S. couples decide to have children without first getting married, a group of 18 family scholars is sounding an alarm about the impact this may have on those children.
In a new report out on Tuesday, they say research shows the children of cohabiting parents are at risk for a broad range of problems, from trouble in school to psychological stress, physical abuse and poverty.
The study is put out by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, groups whose missions include strengthening marriage and family life. It suggests a shift in focus is needed away from the children of divorce, which has long been a preoccupying concern for such scholars.
Brad Wilcox, a report co-author and head of the National Marriage Project, says divorce rates have steadily dropped since their peak in 1979-80, while rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing have soared. Forty-one percent of all births are now to unwed mothers, many of them living with — but not married to — the child's father.
Wilcox notes that the iconic 1979 movie of the divorce revolution, Kramer vs. Kramer, is no longer emblematic of the drama facing families today.
By the time they are 12, children today are more likely to have their unmarried parents live together or with others than to have their married parents divorce or separate.
"It'd be Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Johnson and Nelson," he says with a small laugh. "We're moving into a pattern where we're seeing more instability, more adults moving in and out of the household in this relationship carousel."
Wilcox says the children of the divorce revolution grew up to be understandably gun-shy about marriage. Many are putting it off, even after they have kids. But research shows such couples are twice as likely to split.
"Ironically," he says, "they're likely to experience even more instability than they would [have] if they had taken the time and effort to move forward slowly and get married before starting a family."
In fact, another recent study finds that a quarter of American women with multiple children conceived them with more than one man. Psychologist John Gottman, a co-author of Tuesday's report, says that kind of instability can have a negative impact on kids in all kinds of ways.
"Both in externalizing disorders, more aggression," Gottman says, "and internalizing disorders, more depression. Children of cohabiting couples are at greater risk than children of married couples."
This is true, says marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, "but the question is why it's true."
Coontz teaches family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state and is research director for the Council on Contemporary Families. She says people are more likely to get married if they have the things that make a union strong: mutual respect, problem-solving skills and — especially — economic security.
That's something many working-class men have lost as wages stagnated in recent decades. In fact, Coontz notes that a huge marriage gap has emerged, with lower-income Americans much less likely to wed.
"Cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing is as much a symptom of the instability of children's lives as it is a cause of it," Coontz says. Coontz worries that too many Americans who break up with a partner rush into another relationship, thinking this will provide more stability for their children. As Tuesday's report notes, the appearance of a new caregiver can also be traumatic for children, many of whom appear to fare better with a loving single parent.
To be sure, not all marriages are good, and some cohabiting couples create perfectly healthy families. But psychologist Gottman says for whatever reason — and it's a mystery to researchers — cohabiting partners are not as stable in the U.S. as in some European countries, where family-building outside marriage is more of a norm.
For Americans, Gottman says the evidence for marriage is strong. The institution's wide-ranging benefits — better health, longevity, greater wealth — are not conferred on those who cohabit.
"Because," he says, "they're basically saying, 'If you get into trouble, baby, you're on your own; I'm not there for you.' I think that's the big problem."
Gottman's advice, even if you decide not to tie the knot: pick a partner carefully, then hang in there — for better, or worse.