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12 Ways Kids Are Harmed When Their Parent Cohabitates


Hanna Nikkanen CC

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).

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