Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
July 9, 2001
The disaster of 'shacking up'
Common law cohabitation bad for partners, distastrous for children
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
According to a Statistics Canada study released last month, parents who lived together before marrying are almost twice as likely to separate.
"People who live together first have less stable relationships," commented co-author Heather Juby, "because people who were prepared to cohabit are people who perhaps value less the commitment to marriage."
Unfortunately, the study also found that increasing numbers of children are being born into common-law unions. Statistics Canada found that before they reach age 11, 63 per cent of these children will witness their parents' separation.
Children whose parents' relationship breaks down are substantially more likely to underachieve at school; nearly twice as likely to drop out; girls born into common-law relationships are nearly three times as likely to get pregnant as teens and far more likely to have abortions. Suicides are higher, illegal drug use is greater and the incidence of involvement in crime is nearly six times higher.
A British study found that children are safest when their biological parents are married - least safe when their mother is cohabiting with a man other than her legal husband. Children in the latter circumstance are 73 times more likely to suffer fatal abuse than children with married parents.
The report presents evidence that children are 20 to 33 times safer living with their biological married parents than in other family configurations.
In the United States, a record 1.3 million babies were born out of wedlock in 1999, the first time that a full one-third of all U.S. births were to unwed mothers. The illegitimacy figure is even higher in parts of Canada, notably Quebec.
According to the latest U.S. census data, less than a quarter (23.5 per cent) of households in the United States are now made up of married couples with their children. The number of shacked-up couples in the United States nearly doubled in the 1990s, to 5.5 million couples from 3.2 million in 1990, and just half a million at the end of the 1960s.
The StatsCan study found that among parents who did not cohabit before marrying, 13.6 per cent separated, but among those who lived together prenuptially, the separation rate nearly doubles to 25.4 per cent. Parents who have been in previous common-law unions are also more likely to separate in later relationships.
These results mirror findings of previous studies.
"Cohabiting unions tend to weaken the institution of marriage and pose a clear and present danger for women and children," states a 1999 report by the National Marriage Project, co-authored by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.
It notes that compared with marriages, common-law unions tend to have more episodes of domestic violence to women and physical and sexual abuse of children, and also that annual rates of depression among unmarried couples are more than three times those of married couples.
The Popenoe/Whitehead report cites a 1992 study of 3,300 adults showing that those who live together prior to marriage were 46 per cent more likely to divorce than those who had not.
"The longer you cohabit, the more tolerant you are of divorce," commented Popenoe, "You are used to living in a low-commitment relationship, and it's hard to shift that kind of mental pattern."
Another 1999 study by University of Victoria sociologist Zheng Wu, published in the Canadian Review of Sociology, also reported that prenuptial cohabitation increases the odds of divorce.
Rates of divorce and separation among veterans of common-law relationships remain elevated even if the relationship ends and both people marry others. The risk of divorce is highest when both husband and wife have previously lived in common-law unions, says Prof. Wu.
The National Institute for Healthcare Research notes that couples who cohabited prior to marriage report significantly lower levels of marital happiness than other couples.
Repeatedly, scientific research vindicates "traditional family values" as not "repressive," but rather the formula for happy, stable relationships and functional child-raising.
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