THE BLOG
01/22/2015 05:32 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Will Living Together Without Marriage Damage Kids?

In recent years, the rate of adults over the age of 18 getting married has sharply declined and the rate of children being born to never married parents has skyrocketed. The question that arises for many people is: What are the risks to children when their parents remain single or cohabitate?

In the U.S., approximately two-thirds of couples live together before marriage; this number is compared to one-half of couples 20 years ago, according to The Pew Research Center. The same Pew study reports that approximately 50 percent of adults over age 18 marry; this number is compared to 72 percent in 1960. In addition, the medium age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7 years) according to this report.

For the first time in the United States, single adults outweigh married ones. Barely half of all adults in America -- a record low -- are currently married, down five percent from 2009 to 2010. In fact, the rate of single women getting married dropped by 22.8 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Heritage Foundation's 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity. The U.S marriage rate (the number of women's marriages per 1,000 unmarried women) is the lowest it has been in over a century at 31 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women.

Other adult living arrangements -- including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood -- have all become more prevalent in recent years. For women under 30, most of their children are born outside of marriage. In addition to the reduction in couples marrying in the U.S., more than half (53 percent) of children born to women under 30 are born to women who didn't get married, although many of them reside with their child's father.

The Pew Research Center findings show that most of the rise in non-marital births is among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the U.S. they are more than twice as likely to breakup than marriages. In their comprehensive report, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, concluded that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turns 10.

A recent study from Duke University analyzed over 5,200 U.S. children who were born out of wedlock and recommended that unmarried parents marry before a child turns three so they'll create the strongest possible bond. Study author Christina Gibson-Davis writes: "If you think that stable marriage is beneficial for kids, very few kids born out of wedlock are experiencing that." Gibson also found that marriages are more likely to succeed if mothers marry biological fathers rather than a stepfather.

Many experts conclude that cohabitation puts children at risk for instability. As the rate of couples who live together without being married rises radically, children in America are more likely to experience cohabitation than divorce, according to W. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Wilcox posits that they're also at risk for potential psychological and academic problems, poverty, instability, and child abuse. He writes, "Compared to marriage, cohabitation furnishes less commitment, stability, sexual fidelity, and safety for romantic partners and their children."

Consequently, cohabiting couples are more than twice as likely to breakup and four times as likely to be unfaithful to one another, compared with married couples. A recent study from Drs. Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass found that 65 percent of children born to cohabitating parents saw their parents' breakup by age 12, compared to 24 percent born to married families.

Steps to minimize damage to your children if you cohabitate:

Clarify your expectations and vision for the future with your partner if you plan to have a child or already have one. This can enhance your chances of remaining in a committed relationship.
Consider tying the knot before your child reaches age three so they'll have a stronger bond with both parents.
Discuss parenting strategies with your partner -- such as how you are going to handle conflicts that will arise with children -- especially if you are blending families.
Prepare your children carefully if you are a single parent and want your love interest to move in. Make sure they've met the person many times and feel comfortable with them. Reassure your children that they are 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.

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 Unmarried 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.

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 cohabited had lower levels of commitment than those who were married. Further, couples who cohabit report lower levels of certainty about the future of their relationships, especially if they are males.

This "commitment gap" has been studied by sociologists Michael Pollard and Kathleen Mullan Harris who found that cohabiting males have a lower level of commitment to their relationship than their female partners. This "commitment gap" was also researched by psychologists Scott Stanley and Galena Rhodes who discovered that women who live with their future husband prior to becoming engaged are 40 percent more likely to divorce than those who are engaged before moving in together.

Interestingly, many couples in America today believe that living together prior to tying the knot will decrease their chances of getting a divorce. However, researchers Stanley and Rhodes have demonstrated the "cohabitation effect" -- showing that couples who live together before marriage are less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce.

According to Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade, studies have shown that part of the cohabitation effect can be explained by the fact that some couples gradually move in together mostly out of convenience rather than discussing expectations and their commitment. Jay posits that one of the main factors that put cohabitating couples at risk for breakup is "sliding not deciding."

In closing, if you are a parent and considering cohabitation, explore the risks to your children if it doesn't work out. Ask yourself: Would cohabitation put my children at risk for instability, psychological, financial, or academic problems? Weigh the advantages of tying the knot before having children or delaying cohabiting until your children launch if you're a single parent. However, if you decide to cohabitate and you've taken all the steps outlined above to enhance success, approach your lifestyle with optimism and confidence.

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