Bradford Wilcox: Is cohabitation a bigger problem for society than divorce?

Bradford Wilcox answers questions about cohabitation and divorce in the Washington Post.

The intro:

A new report says cohabitation has replaced divorce as the biggest source of instability for American families. Brad Wilcox, the report’s author, chatted about why this is.

Here are some of the questions:

Can you talk a little about the reasons behind the shift toward cohabitation, rather than marriage?

What is the definition of “cohabitation”? Is there a difference in the study between a child living with biological parents who are unmarried or when one adult in the house is a non-biological parent (boyfriend or girlfriend). I can see the disadvantage for kids living in a household where mom or dad is living with a girlfriend or boyfriend. From my personal experience the whole situation rests on the mother. I know women who have not made the best choices in life and invite boyfriends to live with them and this causes instability in home for the kids. I guess I’m wondering if it is really the type of cohabitation or the reasons behind the couple living together unmarried that causes bad outcomes for the children involved?

How does the problem of cohabitation and its detrimental effects on children correlate with social class? It is my impression that cohabitation is less common in middle-class households with college-educated parents. Isn’t there something of a vicious cycle with parents not marrying because of low incomes, so their children aren’t exposed to marriage and the resulting improved incomes and other benefits? It seems that this may be contributing to the income inequality that is widely reported in the US.

Were you able to sift families based on the length of cohabitation? It seems unlikely to me that a family with parents cohabiting for 10 years with children would be less stable than a family with parents married for 10 years. I would buy that a family with a serial monogamist parent who lives with each partner for a short amount of time (under 5 years) would be quite unstable.

Mr. Wilcox, what does your research (or what is your opinion) regarding those families in which the married couple functions day-to-day essentially as a divorced couple whilst living under one roof? Does research favor parents remaining married and physically under one roof with irreconcilable differences for the sake of children, or is it healthier for the parents to divorce and live physically separately?

Dr. Wilcox, I’m curious what your research indicates about the stability of children in families with two moms or two dads who are not able to get married in their state. Do you find that this type of co-habitation is any stronger/weaker than not? Do civil unions (where applicable) make an adequate substitute for marriage in this instance? Regards

Is “worse” meant to suggest that cohabitation is simply more prevalent than divorce, or does it really mean there is evidence that cohabitation leads to worse outcomes (of some kind) for children than divorce does?

And here’s a sample:

Correlation vs. causation on cohabitation

Q. It seems to me that those negative consequences of cohabitation are derived not from the cohabitation itself but from social trends in communities that tend to cohabit. Is encouraging people to marry really the answer, or does the answer lie in fighting drug abuse, child abuse, and neglect within the communities that most experience it?

A. Good question.

It certainly is the case that cohabiting couples who have children tend to be less educated, poorer, and less committed to their relationship than couples who have children in marriage.

So one reason that children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting families than in intact, married families is that their parents, or the adults in their lives, have fewer of the resources that they need to be good parents.

But the best research on cohabitation and child well-being controls for factors like income, education, and race/ethnicity. And even after you control for these factors, you still find that children in cohabiting families are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, delinquency, drug use, and the like.

For instance, 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.

Research like this suggests to me that cohabitation has an independent negative impact on children, above and beyond the factors that make some Americans more likely to cohabit with children in the first place.

So the answer, I think, is for the nation to improve our children’s home environments in a variety of ways–from improving our nation’s educational system to improving job opportunities to discouraging parents from cohabiting.

Cohabitation vs. single mothers

Q. How does cohabitation compare with children brought up by single mothers?

A. The Why Marriage Matters report focused in its first two editions on divorce and single parenthood.

But as I was reviewing the literature on families for this third edition with my colleagues, I was struck by this fact:

On many outcomes, children in bio- and step-cohabiting families look a lot like children in single-parent families, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences.

So even though kids in cohabiting families have access to two adults they don’t generally do better than kids in single-parent families except on economic outcomes.

I think this is probably because cohabiting relationships tend to be characterized by less commitment, less sexual fidelity, more domestic violence, more instability, and more insecurity, compared to married relationships. Needless to say, these kinds of relationship factors don’t foster an ideal home environment for children.

And it’s also very clear from the research that kids living in a stable, single-parent home are less likely to be abused than kids living in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult male.

I think this is a great area for Christians to be doing quality research in, because it helps us to be able to speak with authority on marriage and family issues when we have evidence. I think people take the decision to have sex, move in together, and marry lightly because they aren’t aware of the consequences of having things not work. If they knew the consequences up front, then they might put more effort into reading about how to do things right. A friend of mine on the East coast has been chatting with me about how little effort people there put into preparing themselves for marriage, selecting a mate and studying marriage and parenting. It’s scary. Even in my office a lot of people are doing this thinking there is nothing wrong with it… how did we get so far away from chastity and courting?

5 thoughts on “Bradford Wilcox: Is cohabitation a bigger problem for society than divorce?”

  1. With no offense meant to any of my Christian friends that have re-married, I’m not sure how much of what goes on in society today should be classified as marriage. And can someone please give me a reason why we would ever use the term serial monogamist? What exactly does monogamy mean today? At one point we understood that a person that was monogamous was someone who had married one person, now it just means you’ve married one person at a time?! Am I the only one that finds this slightly disturbing? I think since marriage has come so far away from it’s original intent and purpose (to give man a sense of his intimate relationship with the Creator) that the only real thing left that we can examine is the welfare of the children. The prime concern must be that children from a union are not in a situation of abuse. This can occur in a married relationship, a cohabitational relationship and even in a case where the mother is single if she is not choosing the right place to house and care for her children. Wintery Knight made a good point in a previous blog of how women who date (bringing the dates home) end up exposing their children to dangers and potential situations of abuse. This is why cohabitational relationships are, as a rule, the worst of the three. Ultimately it is the role of every parent to ensure that their children are in a safe environment at all times. Difficult decisions may need to be made and parents may need to struggle alone for a long time. Raising children alone is not easy and as Christians we need to reach out where we can and support those around us that are dealing with abuse. I was once in the fortunate situation of being able to open up one of my apartments that was not rented to temporarily assist a single mother, and I also have a very supportive family that I know I can count on to help support me in providing safe environments for my children. We should also all do what Wintery Knight is doing with this blog, and educate single mothers about where the potential for abuse exists. Thank you for this post Sir.


    1. Thank you for this reply! I am interested in hearing more about your view on marriage being “to give man a sense of his intimate relationship with the Creator”.


  2. The whole view of marriage as a mere pairing of individuals for the purpose of starting a family is such a naturalistic view that it puts marriage on the same level as mating. For instance if we define all the best ways that a marriage must be structured in order to have the best outcome for children and therefore survival of the species, we might as well be discussing beasts. God is pleased with his creation, and both animals and human are a result of his design. Marriage however is a holy institution. Genesis 2 tells us in verse 18, “The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Why was it important that man not be alone? Why would God even notice? Why would he call that second person a helper? The Christian God is a God of love, and a God that loves us intimately. He wants to be very near to us. He wants to live inside of us. He wants his glory to be shown through us. This is a very difficult thing to experience on a human level. In fact it can really only be fully experienced on a supernatural level. For this reason we have the institution of marriage. It brings two people together in an intimate way where they can experience the kind of life giving love that God has for his creation through the process of procreation. We experience in marriage a love that is so real that in 9 months we will have to give that manifestation a name on a birth certificate. The roles of the male and female speak to God’s role in our lives as protector and provider and guide, while our role is in obedience, respect and service. The fact that woman is designed as the helper becomes immediately clear. God has given man a helpmate made to order in the exact design of how man must be towards his creator. In as much as the woman lives for and is dedicated to her spouse the husband must live for and dedicate himself to his creator. A strong, supportive wife therefore is more than just an aid to a man’s finances, or his goals and desires for himself and his family, but ultimately she is an aid to his salvation. Her supportive nature and faithfulness can guide and help her husband to deeper levels of spiritual awakening if he is open and responsive.


  3. I enjoyed your perspective. Your thoughts on this are really thought provoking. I like them a lot. Do you have any resources for thinking more about marriage in this way?


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