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.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Topic: A Global Epidemic

The News Story: Out-Of-Wedlock Births Rise Worldwide

The New Research: The Failed Alternative to Wedlock

 

The News Story: Out-Of-Wedlock Births Rise Worldwide

“Out-of-wedlock childbirth has soared worldwide since the 1960s,” reads a recent analysis in the Eurasia Review, “and many governments struggle to respond." 

In 2016, about 15% of births worldwide occurred outside of marriage—a huge increase in recent years. What are the causes? First, disapproval of births outside of marriage has declined greatly in many countries. A second reason is the rise in the rates of cohabitation. In the U.S., the analysis reveals, most women cohabit before marriage. Writes the author, “Young couples are aware of divorce statistics and consequences of divorce, even without children involved, and for many, cohabitation is a hedge against divorce.” Contributing factors also include women’s increased financial independence, as well as the introduction of modern contraception. In spite of the reality of increased out-of-wedlock fertility, however, “in too many instances the children born out of wedlock are disadvantaged and fail to receive the necessary protections, support and assistance to ensure their health, development and wellbeing.” “[T]his challenge,” closes the author, rather weakly, “must be addressed.”

What this analysis does not address in the coverage of the rise of cohabitation, however, is the failure of that practice to keep couples together, and thus to keep children with both of their biological parents.

(Sources: Joseph Chamie, “Out-of-Wedlock Births Rise Worldwide—Analysis,” Eurasia Review, March 17, 2017.)

 

The New Research: The Failed Alternative to Wedlock

Back in the sixties and seventies, enlightened social commentators dismissed as Chicken-Little fear-mongers those who expressed concerns about the growing number of couples living in cohabiting unions outside of wedlock. Cohabitation, they assured the nation, would actually serve a beneficial social function as a kind of “trial marriage,” ensuring that those who went on to take vows actually were suited for each other. And even if these cohabiting couples never got around to taking vows, these progressive luminaries averred, their cohabiting unions would be functionally equivalent to marriages. So, no, they assured one and all, the multiplication of cohabiting couples did not mean that the sky was falling.

But in a new study of cohabitation recently completed at Bowling Green State University, sociologist Karen Benjamin Guzzo adduces evidence that can only intensify concerns about cohabitation. In recent decades, not only have fewer and fewer cohabiting couples gone on to marriage, but fewer and fewer have even stayed together. In terms of cohesion and conjugal solidarity, it appears that, yes, the social sky is falling.

Aware that “cohabitation has become quite common in the United States in recent decades,” Guzzo looks for evidence as to whether the practice of cohabiting has changed as it has become more common. She seeks such evidence in data collected between 2002 and 2010 for a nationally representative sample of 20,687 cohabiting unions. Guzzo’s analysis of these data establishes that “cohabitation is indeed changing over time”—and is changing in disturbing ways. 

While the data indicate that “the majority of today’s marriages are preceded by cohabitation,” they also reveal that “fewer cohabitations are transitioning to marriage” than in past decades. Consequently, “marriage rates are at an all-time low,” and—in our cohabitation-prone culture—“marriage rates are [still] declining.”

The progressive theory of cohabitation as a beneficial preparation for wedlock looks increasingly implausible in light of data establishing that among cohabiting couples “the chances of marriage . . . have declined over time, with the earliest unions—those formed in the 1980s—more likely to transition to marriage and those formed since 2000 less likely to transition to marriage.” Guzzo understandably interprets this statistical trend as evidence of “the de-linking of cohabitation and marriage.”

The progressive theory of cohabitation as the functional equivalent of marriage is also losing credibility. The data show that cohabiting unions are becoming more and more fragile. Guzzo reports that “since the late 1990s, the risk of dissolution [among cohabiting couples] has increased, with the most pronounced changes occurring for cohabitations formed most recently.” Guzzo, in fact, believes that “the elevated risk of dissolution” among cohabiting unions has played a “particularly big role” in transforming the character of cohabitation. If the couple cohabiting this month is quite likely to have parted next month, then it appears that couples who dispense with a priest or pastor in coming together enjoy the rather dubious advantage of dispensing with an attorney in separating quickly. Guzzo wonders if cohabiting couples are now less likely to marry, less likely even to stay together, than in past decades because of “a ‘lowering of the bar’ to cohabit as cohabitation becomes increasingly acceptable.” 

Global citizens who care about the social health of their countries will recognize the malign effects of this lowering of the cultural bar, and that such ill effects are likely to exist in countries other than the U.S. that have embraced cohabitation as a replacement for marriage.

(Source: Bryce Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Natural Family 30.3 [2016] Study: Karen Benjamin Guzzo, “Trends in Cohabitation Outcomes: Compositional Changes and Engagement Among Never-Married Young Adults,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76.4 [2014]: 826-42.)