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12 Ways Kids Are Harmed When Their Parent Cohabitates

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Rick Fitzgibbons, MD - published on 11/13/14

Marriage is just a piece of paper? Let's look at the evidence.

Recently, I wrote of the negative effects of cohabitation on couples. My thesis was that had the Synod Fathers known how damaging cohabitation is for the well-being of couples, they would not have alluded to its “constructive elements.” Today, we’ll look at what the research shows us about the effects of cohabitation on children, the growing number of innocent third parties to such casual arrangements.

In 2000, 41 percent of all unmarried-couple households included a child under the age of 18. This is up from only 21 percent in 1987 (U.S. Census Bureau, March 2000). 21 percent of children are born into cohabiting unions.

Cohabiting unions are highly unstable. Yet, today, more than 2.5 million kids are living in cohabiting homes – up more than twelve-fold from the 1970s. And more than 40 percent of kids will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either with their own biological parents or with one parent and an unrelated adult. In fact, because of the growing popularity of cohabitation, research shows that children are more likely to experience cohabitation than a parental divorce.

The Harmful Effects of Cohabitation on Children

1.  A 2011 report found that children in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems – drug use, depression, and dropping out of high school – compared to children in intact, married families (Wilcox, “Why Marriage Matters,” [2011], p. 1).

2.  One study from the University of Texas at Austin found that teens living in a cohabiting stepfamily were more than twice as likely to use drugs, compared to teens living in an intact married family, even after controlling for differences in income, education, race, and family instability. In fact, children in cohabiting stepfamilies did worse on this outcome than children in stable single-parent families.

3.  A report in 2010 on child abuse by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that children living with two married biological parents had the lowest rates of harm, 6.8 per 1,000 children, while children living with one parent who had an unmarried partner in the house had the highest incidence, at 57.2 per 1,000 children. Children living in cohabiting households are 8 times more likely to be harmed than children living with married biological parents. (HHS Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, “Abuse, Neglect,  Adoption and Foster Care Research, National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, NIS-4, 2004-2009” [March 2010].

4.  Children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents’ separation, showing an exponential increase in relationship failure for couples currently or ever cohabiting. (P. Smock, 2010).

5.  One of the major risks to children in cohabiting households is the high rate of breakup. This leads to many personal and social difficulties for children as they face the loss of the security found in home life. (“Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation on Families,” “Children and Social Policy.” New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002).

6.  Several studies have shown that children living with their mother and her unmarried partner have more behavior problems and lower academic performance than children in intact families. (“Social Forces” 73(1), 1994).

7.  Fully three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16. Only one-third of children born to married parents will face a similar fate (National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002).

8.  Child abuse is a major problem in cohabiting households. The number of reported cases of abuse has been steadily rising over the past ten years (National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002).

9.  Evidence demonstrates that the most unsafe family environment for children is one in which the mother lives with a boyfriend. (The Heritage Foundation, 1997).

10. Among children who did not live in a consistently intact family through age 12, those whose mothers cohabited at some time experienced a higher level of family instability, measured by the number of transitions in household structure, than those whose mothers had not cohabited, 2.6 vs. 1.4 for white children, and 2.0 vs. 0.7 for black children. (“Journal of Marriage and Family,” (66), February, 2004).

11. Anne-Marie Ambert, the author of a study that reviewed hundreds of research papers examining the social, emotional and financial effects of cohabitation and marriage on women, men, children and society, concluded that cohabitation is inherently unstable and carries a high cost on children’s physical and psychological development. Ambert noted: "Commitment and stability are at the core of children’s needs; yet, in a great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent" (Vanier Institute of Family, "Cohabitation and Marriage: How Are They Related?,” 2005).

12. In a study of 149 inflicted-injury deaths during the 8-year study period, children residing in households with unrelated adults were nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries than children residing with 2 biological parents (adjusted odds ratio: 47.6; 95% confidence interval: 10.4-218). Children in households with a single parent and no other adults in residence had no increased risk of inflicted-injury death. (P.G. Schnizter, “Child deaths resulting from inflicted injuries: household risk factors and perpetrator characteristics” (“Pediatrics,” 2005; 116:687-93).

No wonder that in 2005, the “Princeton-Brookings Policy Brief” concluded, 

Although it was once possible to believe that the nation’s high rates of divorce, cohabitation, and nonmarital childbearing represented little more than lifestyle alternatives brought about by the freedom to pursue individual fulfillment, many analysts now believe that these individual choices can be damaging to the children who have no say in them and to the society that enables them.

Rick Fitzgibbons, MD is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia and has worked with several thousand couples over the past 38 years. Trained in psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center, he participated in cognitive therapy research with Aaron T. Beck. In 1986 he wrote a seminal paper on the psychotherapeutic uses of forgiveness in the treatment of excessive anger and in 2000 coauthored Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hopewith Dr. Robert D. Enright, University of Wisconsin, Madison, for American Psychological Association Books. The second edition of this book is in press. He has been an adjunct professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for the Studies of Marriage and Family (The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC) and a consultor to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.

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