According to a recent sociological study, cohabitation has a notably deleterious impact on one particular group: kids. “As marriage becomes less likely to anchor the adult life course across the globe, growing numbers of children may be thrown into increasingly turbulent family waters,” writes Bradford Wilcox in Foreign Affairs.
A professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, Wilcox and his colleagues recently completed a new study, The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe. The report is the fourth edition of the World Family Map project—which tracks various indicators of family health—and is sponsored in part by the Social Trends Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.
The main study included the United States and 16 European countries. “We were looking at the odds that kids who were born to married or cohabitating parents will still be with their parents when they turn 12,” says Wilcox. “Then we had a sample of more than 60 countries across the globe. When you look internationally at trends, what you see is that there are a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as South Africa, and Latin America, like Colombia, that now have a substantial share of kids being born to cohabiting couples. So the question is: How is cohabitation affecting family stability in those other parts of the world, outside the United States and Europe?”
Wilcox spoke recently with CT about the answers they uncovered.
From your perspective, what are the most striking or surprising results from the study?
In the vast majority of countries that we looked at in Europe, at all education levels, people who are married when they have kids are markedly more stable than people who are cohabiting when they have their kids. Generally speaking, the least educated married families in Europe enjoy more stability than the most educated cohabiting families. That’s not what I would have guessed. I assumed that we’d find some kind of marriage stability premium, but I didn’t realize it would be that pronounced, and that marriage was a more powerful predictor of family stability in Europe than parental education.
In other words, the marriage premium is pretty consistent across Europe. And a lot of academics and journalists and policymakers and ordinary professionals make the mistake of thinking that in Europe, cohabitation and marriage are functional equivalents, but in reality they’re not.