Cohabitation: “Until Life Do Us Part”

23 Mar 2017

Data do not support the claim that “marriage is just a piece of paper.” The paperless alternative – cohabitation - is measurably less stable, both for the adults who choose it and for their children, who don’t have the luxury of choice.

Across the globe, cohabitation is on the rise, with more and more children being born into families headed by a cohabiting couple. What does this mean for family stability in countries around the world—including the United States and Europe, where cohabitation is common? The 2017 World Family Map, the latest in a series of annual reports released by the Social Trends Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, answers this question.

Using data from more than 60 countries around the globe, the report indicates that:

  •  Children born to cohabiting couples in Europe and the United States experience higher levels of family instability in the first 12 years of their lives than children born to married couples.
  • National-level data show that the growth of cohabitation is associated with increases in family instability in countries around the world.
  • Cohabitation is typically not more stable for children than marriage in countries where cohabiting families are more common.
  • For instance, in Italy, virtually no children see their parents break up before age 12 if their parents were married at birth. But more than 10 percent of children born to cohabiting parents see their parents break up by the time they turn 12.
  • Maternal education is a factor that varies among countries, but “there are no countries where marriage is not associated with a stability advantage.”

Stability was chosen for study because it matters to individual children’s lives, and it matters to society.  Family instability – a changing panorama of adults involved in the care of children, is associated with numerous negative outcomes for children across cultures and socioeconomic levels. 

“We know that children thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers,” said IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, one of the report’s lead authors and a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. “The 2017 World Family Map provides fresh evidence that cohabitation is less likely to deliver such family stability to children, compared to marriage.”

“We find no evidence in this report to support the idea that as births to cohabiting parents become more common, as they have in many countries, that marriage and cohabitation resemble each other in terms of stability for children,” said Laurie DeRose, director of research for the World Family Map and a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. “On average, marriage is associated with more family stability for children across the globe—even in countries where it is in retreat.”

Scholars from the Brookings Institution, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and the University of Virginia discussed the report at a conference titled, “Family Instability around the Globe” at Roma Tre University before an audience of students and academics. While they focused primarily on the report’s central essay, “The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability across the Globe,” the report’s most recent global data were also presented. 

As in previous years, the 2017 report presents the latest data on 16 indicators of family structure, family socioeconomics, family processes and family culture within and across regions – 49 countries that are home to a majority of the world’s population. “Each country and region has unique strengths to offer as an example for others to follow, and each also has areas of life where families face ongoing challenges.”

This section of the report presents graphics on data on living arrangements; marriage and cohabitation; fertility rates; births outside marriage; absolute poverty; relative poverty, undernourishment; public spending on family benefits; parental education; parental employment; family satisfaction; parental involvement; family meals; attitudes towards voluntary single-motherhood and the need for two parents; support for working mothers; and family trust, as well as commentary and conclusions.

Download the 2017 World Family Map in English.  It will be soon be available for download in its Spanish translation.