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By Karin Waters

Is a marriage license really necessary?  People generally want to be happy, and when we see adult couples living together, they do seem happy. And if there are kids, they’re bound to be happy too, right? Think again.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that about one in four American children today are born to cohabitating parents.  The number of cohabitating couples with children under 18 has tripled since the late 1990s, increasing from 1.2 million in 1996 to 3.1 million in 2014.  Cohabiting may seem like an easy thing to do, but it is hard on children. 

            Jennifer, age 32 had been living with her boyfriend for four years before they got married.  Within one year she was looking for a divorce lawyer.  She told a therapist about her living arrangement.  “How did this happen?” she asked.  “We liked to be together, and it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.”  This trend is called the cohabitation effect.  Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. 

Unsteady relationships and other negative outcomes

            A 2011 report from the National Marriage Project stated that “cohabitation is not the functional equivalent of marriage…and is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s lives today.”  Compared to couples who are married, cohabitating couples’ relationships are short-lived.  The majority of cohabitationing relationships terminate within three years.    

            What does this do to children?  If children are born within a cohabiting relationship, they suffer the same negative and or even worse outcomes compared to those living in a single-parent household. This includes health problems such as asthma, depression, behavioral problems, and mental health issues. 

            Another research study noted the differences between married and cohabitating relationships.  Cohabiting relationships were more likely to experience partner abuse and infidelity than married couples.  Cohabitating couples are also disadvantaged financially with the lowest level of wealth among household types, comparable to families headed by a single mother. This often translates into socioeconomic disadvantages for children as their parents have fewer resources. Intact, two-parent families and stepfamilies have the highest level of wealth.   

            With more family transitions, negative outcomes, and fewer resources, children who are born into cohabitating relationships often do poorly.  If children are born into a home with married parents, they experience increased social, economic, educational, and overall well-being.   Married parents also experience better physical health, longevity, higher levels of satisfaction, trust, less depression, and healthier behaviors than unmarried couples. In addition, they tend to have greater academic success, which is an important predictor of family stability,   

End the trend

            The impact that cohabitation can have on children and relationships are costly.  Yes, it may be popular, more convenient, and easier to do than getting married, but the research shows it provides better outcomes.  We can help end this trend by promoting marriage at the local and state government levels.  Public and private agencies can sponsor marriage conferences, educational workshops, or make high school classes on marriage and family a prerequisite for graduation. How about a national “marriage week” that recognizes the importance of marriage and family to healthy societies?  

            If you want positive relationships and outcomes for your children, then get married before living together, and make a true commitment.  When children come along, having two biological parents who are married is the best option for them.  Your children’s chances for better, stable outcomes will greatly increase.  Having that “one piece of paper” significantly increases your chances and your children’s chances for a good life.

Karin is a senior at Brigham Young University-Idaho and will graduate in the Fall of 2021 with a degree in Marriage and Family Studies.  In addition to strengthening marriage and family, she likes to garden, play with her seven grandchildren, bake from scratch, and cook with back to basic skills. 

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