By Elizabeth Marquardt
In a recent report released by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a team of family scholars from some of our nationâ€™s leading universities found, to the surprise of many, that cohabitation–not divorce–is now driving rising rates of family instability in America.
For years divorce has been a primary concern for those who watch and worry about family trends. Children whose parents divorce are more likely to suffer on a host of social and emotional indicators. The good news is that the nationâ€™s divorce rate has stabilized somewhat. The bad news is that this trend is due in part to persons marrying later or not at all, and often living together instead.
As long as mom and dad are living together with their baby, why does it matter if they have this piece of paper that says theyâ€™re married? It turns out that marriage is more than just a piece of paper. Itâ€™s an institution with a set of laws and norms that help guide and support a couple over time. By contrast, just living together is not as stable as marriage. The report finds that the parental breakup rate is 170% higher for children born to cohabiting couples compared to those whose parents married. Moreover, federal data shows that children are at least three times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused in cohabiting households, compared to children in intact, biological married parent homes. They are also more likely to experience delinquency, drug use, and school failure.
Finally, studies also suggest that cohabitation in a range of cultural and national contexts is less stable than marriage. In other words, the problems with cohabitation are not, to paraphrase from the title of a book now heating up public discussion in America, just â€œa white thing.â€ [link to the new book] African American and Latino children born into cohabiting unions are also more likely to see their parents break up than their peers who were born to married parents.
Marriage is about much more than a church service, a big party, and a fancy dress. Itâ€™s the best social institution we humans have come up with so far to address the needs that men and women have to bond with one another and their childrenâ€™s needs to have their mothers and fathers in their lives. Given the deep emotional and social needs that marriage serves, itâ€™s really no surprise that African American children suffer just as much as others when their parents cannot make their love last. Marriage matters. For everybody.
Elizabeth Marquardt is editor of FamilyScholars.org, where she also blogs. She is vice president for family studies and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
Marquardt is the co-investigator most recently of My Daddyâ€™s Name is Donor, which examines the identity and kinship experiences of adults conceived through sperm donation and is based on a new representative sample. The study was the subject of reporting and commentary in the publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Slate, and abroad in outlets including Le Monde and the Irish Times. Marquardt is author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, 2005). Based on the first nationally-representative study of grown children of divorce in the U.S., she argues that while an amicable divorce is better than a bitter one, even amicable divorces profoundly shape the inner lives of children. She is also co-principal investigator of a national study, Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today.
Marquardt has appeared often on NBCâ€™s Today Show as well as on broadcast news programs on CNN, ABC, FOX, CBS, and PBS and scores of radio programs including BBC World News and national and local NPR stations. Her writings have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Slate, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a frequent presenter to academic and professional groups in the U.S. and internationally and her work has been covered widely.
She holds a Masterâ€™s in Divinity and an M.A. in international relations from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. in history and womenâ€™s studies from Wake Forest University.