The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Married or “Partnered”? The Difference for Childbearing Women


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Yielding to the pressures of political correctness, many social scientists now place married parents in the same analytical category as “partnered” cohabiting parents. But the authors of a large new Canadian study suggest that their colleagues are making a serious error in combining categories in this fashion. For as it turns out, childbearing married women enjoy decided advantages over those who are merely “partnered,” advantages that sociologists will not fully recognize if they start lumping married couples together with “partnered” couples.

Completed at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, this new study analyzes partner violence, substance abuse, and postpartum depression among childbearing women in differing marital and living circumstances. Such an analysis is necessary, the authors of the study assert, at a time when “births to unmarried women have been steadily increasing,” with births to unwed mothers now outnumbering births to married mothers in a number of European countries and with out-of-wedlock births now accounting for 40% of all births in the United States and 30% of all births in Canada. In the upsurge of out-of-wedlock births, the researchers recognize “the emergence of nonmarital cohabitation as a popular living arrangement.” However, social scientists struggle to answer questions about how the new popularity of nonmarital cohabitation translates into public-health outcomes. The authors of the new study indeed argue that because of inconsistency in the way those who collect data categorize cohabitation, “it is still unclear . . . how marital status relates to maternal well-being and reproductive outcomes” in today’s fast-evolving social world. Uncertainty particularly surrounds the question of “whether the association of duration of cohabitation and maternal well-being, if any, is different between married and cohabiting women.”

To address this question, the researchers scrutinize data collected in 2006 and 2007 from a cross-sectional nationwide sample of 6,421 childbearing Canadian women, a sample statistically weighted so as to be representative of 76,500 Canadian women. These data coalesce into a pattern clearly favoring marrying women. Compared to married peers, “divorced and separated women were more likely to report intimate partner violence, substance use, and postpartum depression.” The data likewise indicate that “single, never-married women were . . . at higher risk” for the three types of problems in view, particularly partner violence and substance abuse. Elevated risk of partner violence and substance abuse also shows up in the data for nonmaritally cohabiting women, especially those who had been cohabiting with their partners a relatively short period of time. For the married women in their study, the researchers conclude that “the protective effect of marriage seemed to operate regardless of the length of cohabitation.”

The remarkable power of “the protective effect of marriage” stands out clearly in the Odds Ratios that the researchers calculate for the three types of pathologies under investigation. For partner violence, the researchers calculate an Odds Ratio of almost twelve separating married women from divorced and separated women, of nearly ten separating them from single, never-married women, and of almost three separating them from cohabiting women. For substance abuse, a similar pattern prevailed, with an Odds Ratio of almost seven separating married women from divorced and separated women, of over seven separating them from single, never-married women, and of over five separating them from cohabiting women. Marriage provided a less dramatic but still notable protection against postpartum depression, protection manifest in an Odds Ratio of almost three separating married women from divorced and separated women, and of almost two separating them from single, never-married women. The data indicate that married women enjoy a slight but not statistically significant advantage over cohabiting women in vulnerability to postpartum depression.

To be sure, these Odds Ratios shrink when the researchers re-analyze their data in a statistical model that takes into account maternal age, education, ethnicity, and household income. But even in this model, the “protective effect of marriage” remains impressively strong, especially for partner violence and substance abuse. Married women are still separated from divorced and separated peers by Adjusted Odds Ratios of almost nine for partner violence, over three for substance use, and over two for postpartum depression. And married women are still separated from single, never-married women by Adjusted Odds Ratios of over five for partner violence and over three for substance abuse. In this statistical model, married women are still separated from cohabiting peers by an Adjusted Odds Ratios of over two for partner violence and over three for substance use. The relative advantage that married women enjoy over peers who are single, never-married, or cohabiting remains perceptible, but is not statistically significant.

To further clarify the “protective effect of marriage,” the Canadian researchers statistically compare women who had been living with a husband more than five years with unmarried women who had been cohabiting with a partner less than two years. Even after making statistical adjustments for maternal age, education, ethnicity, and household income, the researchers find that married women are separated from cohabiting women by Adjusted Odds Ratios of almost five for partner violence, over five for substance abuse, and almost two for postpartum depression.

No doubt, progressive True Believers will continue to argue that nonmarital cohabitation constitutes the functional equivalent of wedlock. Consequently, some social scientists will combine cohabiting partners and married couples in the same analytical category. But the authors of this new study have strong empirical justification when they say that they “do not support the practice of including cohabiting and married women within the same group” and when they call for “a finer typology of unions [that] allows better identification of women at risk for psychosocial problems.”

As this new study clearly shows, no matter how popular nonmarital cohabitation may become, the potent “protective effect of marriage” still stands out when those collecting data do so with open eyes.

(Marcelo L. Urquia, Patricia J. O’Campo, and Joel G. Ray, “Marital Status, Duration of Cohabitation, and Psychosocial Well-Being Among Childbearing Women: A Canadian Nationwide Survey,” American Journal of Public Health 103.2 [2013]: e8-e15, Web.)


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