03/22/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Americans Schizophrenic When It Comes to Marriage and Families

When it comes to marriages and families, Americans can be disturbingly schizophrenic.

Consider this: Increasingly, 20- and 30-something young women and young men are living together but staying away from the altar. They're also having babies. Taken together, these trends, which show no signs of weakening, can be harmful to children, according to a large study released this week entitled Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America. In particular, children born to unmarried parents without a four-year college degree -- increasingly the norm in middle class families -- are at risk.

The typical co-habiting couple doesn't make it past five years,

says Barbara Ray, a nationally known writer on issues facing young adults.

Now think about this: Some 20- and 30-somethings, namely, gay women and gay men -- want very much to be married. Some of them already have children, some plan to have or adopt children, and both groups argue that children of gay parents should enjoy the same rights, benefits and protections that the children of straight, married parents enjoy.

Rather than winning applause, however, they're frequently rebuffed.

For example: California's Proposition 8, endorsed by voters in 2008, defines as valid only marriages between a man and a woman. A more formidable barrier is the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in a previous Congress, which denies gays who are married, and any children they have, the right to federal benefits. Lower courts overturned the congressional restrictions but defenders appealed to the Supreme Court, which is to hear arguments starting next week.

How, one might ask, can some of the legislators most vocal about the benefits of marriage and children want to deny marriage and children to a certain group? This question has a fair number of Supreme Court reporters scratching their heads and saying, "What...?" The legislators' reasoning goes like this:

Opposite-sex relationships among unmarried, young adults are unstable and tend to result in unplanned or unintended pregnancies. These parents need the structure of marriage to keep them together as they raise their children. Gay couples, on the other hand, have to do research and make plans in order to have or adopt children. They are more likely than straight couples to stay together and therefore don't need the sanction and assistance of government in order to be persuaded to do so.

My response? Of course, there are unmarried couples and single women and men who raise happy, healthy children, particularly if they're supported by family members and/or close friends. Yet, as Knot Yet points out, research leaves little doubt about the overall benefits of marriage to children.

Parents who are unmarried and living together at the time their child is born, are three times more likely than married parents to break up by the time the child is five. They're also three times more likely to move on to new partners and possibly new children. If they only have a high school degree and/or some college -- what the report defines as the middle class - they are more likely to work at low-paying jobs, suffer depression, and raise children with emotional and academic problems. Single parents, according to the report, "experience even more instability."

More education might help stabilize them. Perhaps they could also learn a thing or two from their gay friends who realize that when entered into deliberately and thoughtfully, marriage can both strengthen a partnership and offer a sounder environment in which children grow up.

Stepp is a senior media fellow at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which co- sponsored "Knot Yet." Other sponsors were the the Relate Institute and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.