Unmarried Parents and Their Children

David Popenoe, Rutgers University professor of sociology, believes profound differences exist between the relationship of married and that of unmarried cohabiting parents. For the children and the couples themselves, these routines – married or unmarried – have substantial consequences.

The two groups – the marrieds and the unmarrieds – have quite different preferences and expectations. Compared to the marrieds, the unmarrieds have less commitment to each other and less reluctance to consider a breaking up, a shorter time horizon in their life planning, less merging of their financial, social, emotional, and work lives, and less sexual exclusivity. Associated with this difference, according to numerous studies, are the facts that the unmarrieds are 50 percent more likely to break up, have much higher rates of spousal abuse, live at a lower economic level, have lower levels of happiness (both men and women), derive fewer physical and mental health benefits from the relationship, receive less help from their extended families, and have poorer sex lives.

These circumstances have profound consequences for children, who have fewer economic resources, receive less parenting from their fathers and face a much greater risk of parental break-up. This leads to two to three times the risk of having serious social problems when the children become adolescents and young adults, such as teenage out-of-wedlock childbearing.

When Dad is biologically unrelated to the child, which is much more often the case in unmarried families, the child is no better off than living with a single mother, and, compared to a child in a traditional family he or she is much more in danger of being seriously abused sexually and physically.

In the arena of unmarried cohabiting parents and children, it’s handy to remember the number 40 because that’s roughly the percentage of:

  • all babies who are born to unmarried mothers
  • unmarried moms who live with their partners
  • unmarried partner households that include children, and
  • all children who can expect to live with cohabiting partners at some time.

Thirty-three percent of lesbian couples live with children, as do 22% of gay male couples.  The majority of unmarried families with children are actually unmarried stepfamilies, where the children live with one biological or adoptive parent, and that parent’s partner.

Popenoe claims that despite the increasing acceptance of unmarried parenthood – particularly the idea that, if a child has two parents, it makes no difference whether or not those parents are married because parents are parents – children in this situation are worse off. In general, almost half of children growing up today will spend some time living with an unmarried, cohabiting couple. This should be considered a national tragedy, Popenoe says, and for our nation’s children, “one of the worst things that could befall them.”

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