Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Cohabitation Hurts Children's Lives

March 22, 1999

Bruce Logan is director of the New Zealand Educational Development Foundation. His views of the negative impact of cohabitation on the lives of children was published in the February 27, 1999 edition of The Press, a New Zealand newspaper. Here is what he has discovered.

Parental marriage best for children. Because of the wholesale acceptance of cohabitation as a substitute marriage, researchers are now finding what society has always known; childrens' prospects for happier and healthier lives fare best when parents are married.

Cohabitation is, on the whole, a poor substitute for marriage and an ineffective trial for marriage:

  • In Britain, cohabiting couples are almost six times more likely to split up as those who are married. In Australia the figures are almost identical and in New Zealand they seem to be similar. Even when there are children, cohabiting couples break-up five times more often when compared to married couples.
  • In Sweden, cohabitation is regarded legally and culturally as an accepted alternative to marriage, rather than a transitional or temporary arrangement. This is reflected in the increasing length of cohabitations, and in those who never marry.

But despite having the appearance of being equivalent, Swedish cohabiting unions and marriages do not have the same durability. Official studies show that cohabiting couples with one child are nearly four times more likely to end their union.

  • Data from Norway shows that one in 10 children born to married parents experienced parental separation by the time the child was 10. The same proportion of children of cohabitees did so by the age of two.
  • Recent national studies in Canada, Sweden, Australia, and the United States found that pre-marital cohabitation significantly increased rather than decreased the risk of divorce. Cohabitees consistently report lower-quality marriages and a lower commitment to the institution of marriage.

In most Western nations, including New Zealand, broken cohabitations are responsible for up to half of single-parent families even though they are a much smaller proportion of the total.

The effects of cohabiting breakups on children. Logan has marshaled evidence that shows how break-ups of cohabiting parents has damaging consequences for children.

Poorer mental health. The resulting instability means that children are more likely to suffer from poor performance in school, a lack of concentration and are more anxious and attention-seeking when young. They are more likely to fall ill, to have behavioral problems, to fall prey to solvent, drug, and alcohol abuse, and to come before criminal courts.

Fewer resources. Marriage has also proven to be a child's best defense against being in a poor household. Some research has even shown that married men earn, on average, 10 per cent more than cohabiting men.

A well-known analyst of single parenthood and child support in the United States, Dr. Sara McLanahan, reported at a seminar in 1997 that she had changed her mind and now admits that marriage is good for children. "It strengthened their claim to the economic resources and social capital of both their parents."

Less contact with fathers. After a relationship has broken up it has been found that divorcees maintain significantly better contact to their children. They also give more financial and personal support to their children after a divorce than do splitting cohabitees.

In the US, about 40 per cent of fathers who live away from their children rarely see them, if at all. The longer fathers and children live apart, the less involved fathers become. It was found that after parental separation, children whose parents had not married were twice as likely to lose touch with their fathers as those with divorced fathers.

In Britain, research has shown that only 45 per cent of children of cohabiting couples remain in contact with both parents after a break-up, compared with 69 per cent of those whose parents were married.

Less financial support. The same British researchers also found that more divorced fathers who didn’t live with their children provided financial support to their former family than was the case fathers who left their cohabiting mate: 68 percent compared with 31 percent. This support was also more likely to be given regularly by former married fathers: 44 percent of formerly married gave regularly, compared with 16 per cent of former cohabitees.

Logan concludes that the evidence clearly indicates that marriages represented a higher degree of investment in the parental relationship than is the case for cohabitees. He decries how the preoccupation of individual rights distorts society's understanding of the important role that marriage plays in protecting children.

In New Zealand, parliament is considering legislation that will make marriage, de facto relationships, and same-sex relationships legally similar. Logan argues against this.

He said, "We should think twice and think again before we change legislation that is likely to increase the incidence of cohabitation and consequently devalue marriage and obviously cause children to suffer even more. It is not usually the partners who suffer most, but the children, and their suffering can last a lifetime. Further social acceptance of cohabitation is likely to make these problems worse."