SALT LAKE CITY — A new survey reveals that the relationships of cohabiting couples around the globe may be wobblier than those of married couples, creating risk of instability for children.
The report, published by the Institute for Family Studies, finds a large number of kids worldwide are raised in two-adult households, but finds great variation in adult relationship stability within those households. Generally, couples who are married prioritize their relationships more than those who cohabit — and they're more likely to believe their relationships will last.
That has ramifications for how stable life is for their children.
"Children tend to do better when their lives are marked by stable routines with stable caregivers," write co-authors Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox in "Less Stable, Less Important: Cohabiting Families' Comparative Disadvantage Across the Globe." Wang is the director of research and Wilcox is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.
"We know that children are more likely to flourish in enduring families, so examining stability differences between cohabiting and married families continues to be a meaningful focus for experts interested in promoting child well-being," Jason Carol, professor in the School of Family Life and associate director of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, told the Deseret News.
The Global Family and Gender Survey on which the report is based includes responses from 16,474 adults in 11 countries who live with minor children in their homes. The survey was fielded in September 2018 by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution and included couples from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, the United Kingdom and the United States. Generally, the survey found married couples feel better about their relationship and its future than cohabiting couples, though the gap was bigger in some countries than others.
"Not every child will experience these things, but research shows children (in unstable environments) have behavior problems, less school achievement and an array of indicators that have shown stability is really almost the most important factor in how kids perform," Wang said.
The new findings
The report finds nearly 40 percent of cohabiting couples in the United Kingdom with minor kids at home say they've had "serious doubts that their relationship with their partner will last" — the highest of any country in the study. By comparison, 27 percent of married couples in the U.K. doubted their relationship in the last year.
The United States (36 percent), Australia (35 percent) and Canada (34 percent) had similar numbers expressing doubt, as did 31 percent of those in Canada, Ireland and France. "Across the Anglosphere, cohabitation is perceived as markedly less stable than marrying by parents," the report says. In contrast, just one in five cohabiters in Argentina question whether their relationship will last.
In France, skepticism about the longevity of the relationship was highest, but marital status made little difference: 31 percent of cohabiters and 30 percent of married couples said they'd experienced doubts.
In the United States, the difference between the two groups was 19 percentage points, with 17 percent of married couples expressing doubts compared to 36 percent of cohabiters.
Cohabiting adults were also less likely to agree that "my relationship with my partner is more important to me than almost anything else in my life." More men agreed than women, regardless of marital status, which the report said "may reflect the fact that mothers are more likely than fathers to prioritize their children over their partner."
The biggest gap between married and cohabiting couples on that question was in the United Kingdom, where 71 percent of married couples agreed, compared to 54 percent of cohabiting couples. Cohabiters in Australia, Canada, the United States and Ireland were "a lot less likely than married parents to view their relationship as a vital part of their lives," the report says.
While satisfaction with family life was generally higher for married couples compared to cohabiters, that didn't hold true everywhere. In Mexico, married and cohabiting couples were equally satisfied with family life, at 64 percent each. The United States has an 8-point gap, with 69 percent of married respondents satisfied compared to 61 percent of cohabiters. The biggest gap is in Canada, where 48 percent of cohabiting parents and 62 percent of married parents express satisfaction with family life.
Wang and Wilcox said their new survey's conclusions are similar to findings in the 2017 World Family Map report, which looked at families in Europe and the United States and found children whose parents are cohabiters are "about 90 percent more likely to see their parents break up, compared to children born to married parents."
"Commitment" might explain "the stability premium for family life associated with marriage," they write. "Specifically, this brief finds that married parents are more likely to attach greater importance to their relationship, compared to cohabiting parents."
Family structure challenges
Some experts suggest that children who live with cohabiting adults will do as well as children of couples who are married because the important thing is that there are two adults in the home. But there are significant differences, according to Wang. Not all cohabiting couples include both biological parents of the children living in the home. In many cases, couples include a single mom living with her boyfriend, who is not related to one or all of the children there. These relationships can be "hard to navigate" for kids, Wang said.
"In terms of stability, when kids grow up with cohabiting (adults), about 50 percent see the parents break up by age 5" in the United States, Wang said. That's not as true for children who live with their married parents.
Many studies look at family instability through the lens of divorce, while research on cohabiting is just catching up as it becomes more common and marriage (and thus divorce) becomes less so. Often, studies on divorce cite the potential damage it brings to children, but there aren't parallel studies examining fractured cohabiting relationships.
Even studies focused solely on divorce aren't all consistent. For instance, divorce has been linked to child delinquency. But a recent study by researchers at Florida State University published in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice suggests the impact isn't large in adolescent years and isn't "substantially associated with criminal behavior in adulthood." Kids outgrow the small effect, said researcher Kevin M. Beaver, professor of criminology and a study author.
Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver, believes predicting how family structure will impact children — including divorce or breakup of cohabiting couples — is hard to do at the level of individual families. And because parents make the relationship and living arrangement choices, they can be sensitive to what they see as criticism.
Beyond that, while the risks are "clear and consistent" that children will suffer some negative impacts when adults leave partnerships, Stanley said no trend will be true in every family or for every child. Difficulties are more likely, but not assured.
Parents can also take steps to minimize harm. Stanley likes how sociologist Paul Amato characterized such efforts, likening it to reducing the risk from secondhand smoke: "A modest risk in cases where people try to change behavior to improve the odds for children," Stanley said.
A child's age when a parental relationship ends matters, too, said Stanley, who adds the effect on children may also change depending on what kind of relationship the adults had — such as whether they fought a lot or had a low-conflict relationship.
Stanley said while researchers more often pay attention to divorce and its impact than that of cohabiting adults who separate, children are more affected by cohabitation, in part because there's more of it. And adults in those relationships may have drifted in, rather than entered the relationship with deliberation. While couples choose to marry, cohabiting may be the result of what he calls "sliding" into a relationship, rather than "deciding" on it.
He believes children need three things in particular: stability, involved parenting and a healthy emotional climate. Many different family structures can provide them — and any family can make them a priority.
"But it's also fair to say there are pathways more likely than others to produce that. Marriage is certainly more likely to produce stability and involved parenting and may or may not have the healthy emotional climate. Cohabiting is less likely to have stability," he said.