Child abuse, poverty a greater risk in cohabiting couples

This is the fourth in a series about understanding cohabitation and its relationship to marriage and divorce.

Q. How does cohabitation affect children?

A. The results of the National Marriage Project found the most problematic issue in cohabitation is the effect on children. In 1987, there was 21 percent of unmarried households with children. By 1997, that number had grown to 36 percent. For cohabiting couples ages 25 to 34, the percentage was close to half who had children.

The greatest risk for children in cohabitation households is couples breaking up. For cohabiting couples, the rate of splitting up is 75 percent, before the children reach 16. In marriage, the rate of separation or divorce by the time the children are 16 is one-third.

Another trend in cohabitation impacting children is only 44 percent of cohabiting mothers eventually marry the fathers of their children. The majority of children in cohabiting households were not born to the couples with whom they reside. The children are from previous unions, generally former relationships of the mothers. Thus, the males in the cohabiting households are usually stepfathers or boyfriends.

Child abuse is a significant social problem. Studies looking at abuse prevention have found stepparents show much higher levels of abuse both in married and unmarried households. Boyfriends also are more likely to be abusive whether they cohabit with or date mothers.

A study in Great Britain examined the relationship between child abuse, family structure and the parental marital background. Children who live with cohabiting biological parents were 20 times more likely to be abused than children living with married biological parents. Children living in cohabiting households with a mother and a boyfriend not the father have a 33 times higher risk of abuse than children in intact families. The risk of abuse for children is only 14 times as great for single mothers living alone than for intact families. Unfortunately, the majority of cohabiting mothers with children live with someone who is not the biological father.

Along with the risk of abuse for children living in cohabiting households, there is also the increased risk of poverty. In 1996, the poverty rate for children in married couple families was 6 percent. For children living in cohabiting households, the rate of poverty was 31 percent. Although the poverty rate is not as high for cohabiting households as for single mothers (45 percent), it is much higher than the rate for intact married families.

Cohabiting couples raising children have approximately two-thirds the income of married partners who have children. The average income of men in cohabiting relationships is half the income of married men. Social scientists point out economically poorer partners choose cohabitation over marriage because of the additional costs for marriage. Another factor that affects income levels in married and unmarried households is the case that men who marry and have children tend to become more responsible financially. Research shows married men earn more than cohabiting men. Another issue related to the financial status of married versus unmarried households is the transfer of wealth within extended families. Family wealth is much more likely to be shared with in-laws rather than unmarried partners.

Women who cohabit are more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse than women who marry. Statistics support the fact violence against women increases the chances of violence against the children. In addition, observing partner violence causes problems in children. Children living in cohabiting households in which the adults are not their biological parents are vulnerable to any abuse in the households.

The American Journal of Public Health published an article in 2004 summarizing research about the mental health of the parents of infants. The research focused on four relationship types. These included married, cohabiting, non-cohabiting romantic and non-romantic. The study examined six mental health indicators: depression, anxiety, illicit drug use, alcohol use, history of incarceration and partner violence. Data was used from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a study of 4,900 births from 20 urban areas from 1998 to 2000. Results found parents of infants not romantically involved had the most mental health problems. Cohabiting and romantic parents were similar in general, but there were two significant differences. Romantic fathers were more likely to have had significant episodes of depression and to have been in jail. Another finding was violence between partners was twice as high for romantic couples as for married couples.

Previous incarcerations of fathers have implications for the welfare of children. Employers discriminate against men who have criminal records. Recent changes in laws have increased the number of men convicted of drug offences. The result is these men have difficulty finding employment that could sustain stable marriages. Past imprisonment, therefore, affects their abilities to adequately support children.

* Next week's article will examine cohabitation relationships in young adults and older adults.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.