The Double Curse of Cohabitation

Given the dramatic rise in the prevalence of premarital cohabitation, it comes as no surprise that an increasing percentage of cohabiting couples in the United States (about 40 percent) are also cohabiting parents. But just as “shacking up” diminishes the prospects of marital success, having a baby while cohabiting exerts a toll on the child’s future that is difficult to shake. Indeed, a study by Kammi Schmeer of Ohio State University finds that when parents are married at time of childbearing, that sanctioned bond represents a significant health advantage to the child at age 5. On the other hand, when childbirth occurs to cohabiting parents, even if the illicit union remains “stable” for the next five years, the effects on early childhood health are just as deleterious as parental separation or divorce and just as deleterious as if the couple had dissolved their illicit union.

Looking at longitudinal data representing 2,160 children born between 1998 and 2000 to married or cohabiting parents from the Fragile Families and Child Well Being Study, the Buckeye sociologist measured the health effects of having married parents at birth, relative to having cohabiting parents at birth, as well as the differences between the two union statuses by their stability between birth and age 5. Controlling for “key confounders,” or characteristics that are usually related to children living in cohabiting households (like low birth weight and maternal health at birth), Schmeer found that children born to married parents were significantly more likely to be in “excellent,” rather than “very good,” health at age 5 (p<.05). Furthermore, she found that children with stably married parents during their first five years of life enjoyed a significantly lower risk of being in the poorest health category than their peers living in stably cohabiting-parent households (p<.05).

Not only was there a clear health disadvantage, at age 5, to being born to cohabiting parents or living with such parents in a “stable” cohabiting union, but also no significant differences emerged between children whose parents had dissolved their relationship and their peers whose parents had remained cohabiting. Both categories yielded worse health categories for children at age 5 than having parents who remained married for the five years, suggesting that stable cohabitation is an oxymoron. However, cohabiting parents who tied the knot during the first five years were able to improve the health status of their children somewhat. These children were found to be significantly less likely to be in good/fair/poor health, compared with either very good or excellent health, than their peers whose parents remained cohabiting (p<.05).

Even as Schmeer issues a standard warning that her findings be interpreted with caution, her study illustrates that not all sociologists want to blur the differences between holy matrimony and cohabitation. To Americans concerned more with the objective welfare of children than the arbitrary and ever changing desires of adults, that’s promising.

(Kammi K. Schmeer, “The Child Health Disadvantage of Parental Cohabitation,” Journal of Marriage and Family 73 [February 2011]: 181–93).