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Cohabitation vs. Marriage: Does it Matter to Children?

Posted on in Family Law

marriage, cohabitation, children, Naperville family lawyerThe number of unwed parents in America has risen drastically over the past few years. A 2012 study, conducted by Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, reported that 1 in 4 babies in the U.S. are born to unmarried parents. While it was once assumed that birth outside of marriage meant that one parent was likely not present, the currently growing trend is for parents to cohabitate without getting married. On the surface, cohabitating couples look just like married ones. They live together, and both work together to support their children. As marriage becomes less and less important to generations of young Americans, experts predict many more couples will choose cohabitation over marriage in the future. Does cohabitation versus marriage have any impact on the health and well-being of children?

Cohabitation Gains Popularity

Since the late 1990’s, the number of parents living together, unmarried, has skyrocketed. In 1996, 1.2 million children lived with unwed parents. Jump to 2014, and that number has grown to over 3 million children. In the past, many couples faced religious and societal pressure to get married before moving in together or having children, so it makes sense that cohabitation was less common. Modern society is much accepting and less strict, so it is no surprise that parents are skipping marriage, choosing to cohabitate and have children instead. Other experts suggest the recession could be another cause for the higher numbers. They say the bad economy has led many couples to choose to wait to get married until money becomes less tight, but, in the meantime, life happens, and many find themselves living together with children.

Impact on Children

While there are certainly successful unwed parents, cohabitation does seem to be less advantageous for children. In the past, unwed couples living together were very likely to separate. While that trend has decreased significantly, there is still a higher likelihood of separation compared to married couples. A stable home life is extremely important to the well-being of children, so a split between parents could be very damaging. Studies do show, however, that unwed parents that intend on getting married at some point tend to stay together about as often as married parents do. The group at the highest risk is couples who never plan on getting married. Around 30 percent of couples who never get married separate within five years, nearly double the break up rate of married parents. Children who experience their parents separating face emotional problems, are likely to do poorly in school, and become more likely to use drugs or alcohol.

Parents who cohabitate are also more likely to be less educated and in lower economic classes. A study conducted by the National Center for Family Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University studied child poverty in 2010. Researchers found that 11 percent of households with married couples and children were at or below poverty level, while cohabitating households were at 47 percent. Single mother households were only one percentage point higher, at 48 percent, so it could be argued that children with unwed parents living together are nearly as disadvantaged as children with a single parent. Still, other experts argue that money and education do not always provide a stable family life, and that children can thrive in disadvantaged situations.

While the signs certainly indicate marriage is the best option for children, millions of unwed parents in the US have successful families. It seems options with the highest success rates are either marriage before having children, or marriage within the first five years of cohabitation.

If you are struggling with legal issues surrounding your family, contact Pesce Law Group, P.C. for help. Our experienced Naperville family law attorneys are skilled in dealing with delicate family matters. Call 630-352-2240 to speak with a qualified legal professional today.


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