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Americans are trending away from making the marriage commitment

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms once more that Americans are on a dangerous trend away from familial commitment. The report, released earlier this month, found that 48 percent of women are living in cohabitation with a significant other outside the bonds of marriage.

This is a sharp increase from a similar report in 1995 that found only 35 percent of women in such relationships. Also, while 40 percent of these women get married within three years of cohabiting, 32 percent continue in that unmarried relationship and 27 break up and move on. Significantly, 19 percent of these unmarried couples had a baby within the first year, with the percentage growing to 25 percent among women who begin cohabiting before the age of 20.

There are many reasons why society should be alarmed by this trend, not the least having to do with the role committed households play in forming stable neighborhoods and community participation, and the clear evidence that women, in particular, tend to end up impoverished as single parents. But the overwhelming reason to be alarmed has to do with the welfare of children. They are the victims of this reluctance toward commitment. They are the victims when the relationship that brought them into the world dissolves.

While there are examples of well-adjusted, successful children raised by single mothers, statistics clearly indicate these are outliers. Most children in such situations face a host of disadvantages. They have limited financial and educational resources. They lack the socialization skills fostered by active male and female parental role models, as well as the relationship skills gained from growing up in a committed household. They are at far greater risk for cognitive and behavioral problems than are children raised by married parents.

Many young people have bought into the false notion that it is wise for a couple to live together as a trial run before marriage, making sure they are compatible. In a New York Times op-ed last year on the subject, Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, explained the problems with this reasoning. Couples often slide into these relationships without ever seriously discussing their expectations, which often differ considerably.

"Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage," she wrote, "while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage."

Because it is much easier to move in with someone than to commit to marriage, neither partner demands the same standards of each other they would in choosing someone to take to the altar. Often they find themselves unhappily in a relationship difficult to dissolve. "Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love," Jay wrote. "A life built on top of 'maybe you'll do' simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the 'we do' of commitment or marriage."

One other disturbing consequence of this trend garners little attention. It has to do with a dwindling population. Despite the 19 percent who have children quickly, cohabitation often leads to the postponement of families. The later couples begin having children, the fewer they have. The United States already has a birthrate below replacement level, as does much of the world. In time, once the older generation begins dying off, the nation will begin seeing the serious economic effects of a shrinking population.

Reports such as the one from the CDC give clear indications of the trend. The consequences may not be as easily apparent to all, but they are real, and they should energize people of understanding everywhere to action.