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Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW Headshot

Cohabitation With Children: What Are the Risks?

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Many authors have written about the benefits and drawbacks of cohabitation in recent years. In my recent Huffington Post article Should I Move In With My Partner?, I write, "While there aren't any easy answers to the question of whether couples should cohabitate, being aware of the risks involved may help you to make a more informed decision." However, what I neglected to address in this article is the issue of how to make a wise decision about moving in with a partner when one or both of you have children.

Adding children to the mix makes cohabitation even more complicated. Yet there doesn't appear to be much research about the impact of parental cohabitation on children. Since single parents make up over 40 percent of all U.S. households, this is an important topic to explore.

If you're a single parent who is considering cohabitation what are the risks? The answer to this question is two-fold because there are multiple risks. First of all, there is some evidence that cohabitation increases your risk for breakup and divorce -- if you decide to marry. Secondly, we need to consider the risk to children who may have a negative reaction to multiple caregivers and loss.

In my opinion, you need to consider that your child may have established a close bond with your partner so they might experience it as a loss if you break up. The late Judith Wallerstein, a distinguished psychologist, was one of the few authors who wrote about this topic. In What About the Kids? she writes, "If they genuinely grow to like or even love the person you've invited into your lives and that person disappears one night, it's another loss. It's frightening when people disappear and it's awful to feel rejected."

Over the last fifty years, there has been a quiet shift in the landscape of family life in America. Approximately two-thirds of couples live together before marriage and this number is compared to one-half of couples 20 years ago according to The Pew Research Center. Rand sociologists, who study family demographics, surveyed 2,600 couples who lived together without marriage. One of the most interesting findings of this study is that young adults who cohabitated had lower levels of commitment than those who marry. Further, couples who cohabitate report lower levels of certainty about the future of their relationships, especially if they are males. While the evidence is mostly anecdotal, most experts agree that cohabitation puts children at risk for possible losses that may compound the original breakup of the family home.

Let's take a look at some statistics that shed light on this topic:

• Over 50 percent of couples who cohabitate before marriage are broken up within five years (Cherlin, 2009)
• Over 75 percent of children born to couples who are not married no longer live with both parents by the age of fifteen(Cherlin, 2009)
• 47 percent of American women who give birth in their twenties are unmarried at the time (New York Times)
• U.S. taxpayers spent $112 billion in 2011 helping to support children and families with unmarried parents (Washington Post)

It's no secret that marriage rates are on the decline. In 1960, 72 percent of Americans were married. Today approximately 50 percent are. Understandably, there's a lot of fear about marriage. Since the divorce rate has hovered around 50 percent for decades, the question for many is: Why marry when there is one in two chances it won't work out? However, what many people forget is that just because a couple isn't married when they break up it doesn't mean they don't have issues to resolve such as financial claims related to property or combined assets.

One thing is for certain, researchers have found that before you decide to live with someone, it is incredibly important that you and your partner are on the same page. Dr. John Curtis, author of Happily Un-Married highlights the "expectation gap" as a critical consideration before moving in with your partner. He states that the fundamental difference between men and women according to a recent Rand Study is that many women view living together as a step towards marriage while many men see it as a test drive.

What are your motivations for living together? If you want to develop a deeper bond, and most significantly, you see cohabitation as a step toward marriage, having differing expectations may be a problem.

If you decide to cohabitate these are steps to minimize damage to your children:

• Sit down with your partner and clarify your expectations about the future. This can enhance your chances of remaining in a committed relationship.
• Be careful not to bypass these discussions and fall into "sliding not deciding," according to author of The Defining Decade, Meg Jay.
• Don't ask your children's permission to cohabitate -- this is too much responsibility for them and will be harder for them to recover from if you breakup.
• Discuss parenting strategies such as how you are going to handle conflicts that will arise with children and between them -- especially if you are blending families.
• Prepare your children carefully. Make sure they've met the person many times and feel comfortable with them. Reassure your children that they are still a priority and that your partner will not replace their biological parent.
• Set household routines that accommodate your partner and your children. Have regular discussions and share meals together so you can check in about how household issues are going.

Before you make the decision about whether or not to cohabitate, consider the risks to your children if it doesn't work out. Ask yourself: Am I selling myself short by moving in with my partner? Would cohabitation put my children at risk for more loss? Weigh the advantages of tying the knot or delaying cohabiting until your children launch. In the end, consider that your child may grow to genuinely like or love this person and if the relationship ends, it's another loss. However, if you decide to cohabitate, approach your new lifestyle with optimism and confidence -- because you've taken all the steps to enhance your chances of success.

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