This morning on the Today Show, Brad Pitt briefly discussed his family, including long-time girlfriend Angelina Jolie and their six adoptive children. When asked if he planned to marry Angie, he said if they determine it would benefit their children, they would do so. Well, here’s some evidence that could change the mind of people wondering if long-term cohabitation is as good a choice as marriage for families with children.
Hopefully, most Americans aren’t modeling their lives after Hollywood celebrities, but cohabitation is becoming more common, so the issue is worth discussing. Marriage is not just a financial decision; it is not just a decision of the heart. It involves these things of course, but when children are involved, they should also be considered. So, today’s post is dedicated to studies showing how children are affected by marriage—emotionally, behaviorially, sexually, mentally, and physically. I would be happy to send you more details on any of these studies.
Research shows that in the U.S. cohabitators resemble singles more than they resemble married couples. Their unions are much less stable. One study showed that half of the children born to a cohabitating couple saw their parents split by the time they were five. The number was even higher for Latino or African-Americans. For married couples, 15% split in the same time period.
Another study found that even after controlling for socioeconomic and parenting factors, teenagers who lived in cohabiting households experienced more behavioral and emotional difficulties than those in intact, married families.
A study found married parents devote more of their financial resources to childrearing and education than do cohabiting parents, whereas cohabiting parents spent a larger percentage of their income on alcohol and tobacco. In the study, cohabiting couples had lower incomes and education levels. They also reported more conflict and violence and lower satisfaction levels.
Marriage has not only social effects on children, but also biosocial consequences. For example, girls appear to have their sexual development affected by male pheromones, which either accelerate or decelerate their development, depending on their family situation. Studies have shown that adolescent girls who do not grow up in an intact married home are more likely to menstruate early. On the other hand, girls “who have close, engaged relationships with their fathers” begin menstruation at a later age. Girls who live with an unrelated male menstruate even earlier than those living with single mothers. Researchers believe the father’s pheromones appear to inhibit sexual development, while an unrelated male accelerates her development. When a girl has earlier sexual development, she is more likely to become sexually active earlier and is at higher risk of teen pregnancies.
Boys also benefit from married parents. Boys in unmarried families carry out more delinquent acts. Boys in single-parent homes are about twice as likely, and boys in stepfamilies are 2½ times more likely, to commit a crime leading to jail time by their 30s. Boys in cohabiting families have been found to be more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior, cheating, and have more school suspensions. When a boy lives with his mother and her boyfriend, the boyfriend is more likely to be abusive than his own father. This leads to additional problems.
Additional research has suggested children with two married parents have better health and a longer life expectancy than other children. This benefit starts in infancy, and remains a lifelong benefit.
It is tempting to suggest the difference is due to socioeconomic status or education levels. But many studies account for these factors. One such study followed academically gifted, middle-class children for 70 years. Researchers controlled for family background and childhood health status, and even personality characteristics. They found children of divorce had life expectancy reduced by four years. They also found that 40-year-old men whose parents had divorced were three times more likely to die in the next 40 years than were 40-year-old men whose parents remained married.
Even babies have a lower risk of mortality when born to married parents than if they are born to unmarried parents. The average increase in infant mortality is 50% for unmarried women. After controlling for age, race and education, infants with unwed mothers still have a higher mortality rate, even through early childhood years.
Sweden has a national health care system for all its citizens. But a study of the entire Swedish population showed boys who lived in single-parent homes were more than 50% more likely to die of various causes (i.e. suicide, accidents, addiction) than those in a married, two-parent home. Boys and girls in single-parent families were more than twice as likely to have problems with drug or alcohol abuse, psychiatric diseases, suicide attempts. They were also more likely to experience poisonings, traffic injuries or falls than teens in two-parent families.
Yet another U.S. study shows teens who live with their married parents are less likely to experiment to drugs alcohol or tobacco than other teens—even after controlling for age, race, gender, and family income.
Mental health of children was also affected when parents split up. Children of divorce have double the risk of serious psychological problems later in life than children with parents who stay married. They are more likely to suffer from depression, drug and alcohol abuse, or suicidal thoughts. The exception is when a marriage has “high and sustained” conflict levels, children benefit psychologically if the parents divorce.
I could write many more examples, but I imagine you get the picture that marriage has been shown in lots of research to protect children in myriad ways. Let me just share the most shocking statistics for those of you still with me. It is hard to imagine for parents who love their children (and stepchildren), but children who do not live with their own two parents are at much higher risk of child abuse. Living with a stepparent is the most significant factor in severe child abuse. Children are more than 50 times more likely to be murdered by a stepparent (usually a stepfather) than by a biological parent. A different study showed children were 40 times more likely to be sexually abused than one living with both of his biological parents. A national study found that 7% of children who lived with one parent had been sexually abused, compared to 4% of children who live with both parents.
With this research in mind, do you believe marriage has a social benefit for children?
Information on these studies can be found in “Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition” by Institute for American Values, or send a request to me and I will send you details on the individual study.