Why Marriage Matters

Marriage, Lone Parenthood, Cohabitation, & Child Well-being in the West

W. Bradford Wilcox*
University of Virginia
Princeton University


The institution of marriage is in trouble in the West. In the last forty years, marriage rates have plummeted, nonmarital childbearing and divorce have surged, and cohabitation has become fashionable throughout the West.


The collective manifestations of this retreat from marriage can be seen on the slide. From 1960 to 2003, marriage rates fell more than 40 percent in countries such as Austria, France, Germany, and Italy. From 1960 to 2000, divorce rates more than doubled in countries as varied as Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden.1 Nonmarital childbearing rose more than 500 percent from 1960 to 2002 in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Indeed, in Scandanavia, largely because of the popularity of cohabitation, almost half of all children are born out of wedlock.2 Thus, in much of the West, marriage has ceased to be the primary institution anchoring the adult life course and guiding the bearing and rearing of children.


Why should this retreat from marriage be of any concern to us? As you know, many leading European scholars, diplomats, and politicians think the de-institutionalization of marriage is not a problem. German sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, for instance, believe that the destabilization of family life in Europe is good, and that it prepares children for the challenges of adult life in late modernity.3


By contrast, a recent report I coauthored, titled Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences, argues that the de-institutionalization of marriage poses a grave challenge to the welfare of European societies and particularly to their most vulnerable members: children. Communities, adults, and especially children pay a heavy price when marriage ceases to be the central institution governing the bearing and rearing of children. Poverty, crime, depression, and suicide are just some of the consequences that follow when the institution of marriage is weakened. Let me now offer a tour de force of the latest social science on marriage.


In making the case that marriage matters for the common good, this report draws largely on the latest social science research on the consequences of lone parenthood and cohabitation for children in the United States. Over the last 30 years, American sociologists, psychologists, and economists have studied the effects of the retreat from marriage upon children and families. An overwhelming body of social scientific evidence has accumulated indicating that children are most likely to thrive when they grow up in an intact, married family. As one recent review of the literature from Child Trends, a leading research organization on child well-being in the United States, concluded, “[R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.”4


Although the social scientific research on the consequences of the retreat from marriage for children in Europe is less well-developed than the research on American children, research on European children suggests that these children suffer in largely similar ways from the retreat from marriage. I turn now to briefly summarizing the key arguments of the report, making connections with existing studies of European family life, and offering a few reasons that marriage matters for children and families in Europe and, indeed, throughout the West.



Lone Parenthood


As this report makes clear, children in lone-parent families are about twice as likely to experience serious behavioral or emotional problems, compared to children in intact, married-parent families. In a recent summary of the literature on family structure and child well-being, American sociologist Paul Amato writes, “compared with children who grow up in stable, two-parent families, children born outside marriage reach adulthood with less education, earn less income, have lower occupational status, are more likely to be idle (that is, not employed and not in school), are more likely to have a nonmarital birth (among daughters), have more troubled marriages, experience higher rates of divorce, and report more symptoms of depression.”5 One recent U.S. study found that adolescents living in lone-mother families were twice as likely to use illicit drugs, and adolescents living in lone-father families were three times as likely to try illicit drugs, compared to teens living in married families.6 Research also indicates that adolescents who grow up in lone-parent families are significantly more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, compared to adolescents in intact, married families.7 In fact, one study found that boys raised in lone-parent families are about twice as likely to commit a crime that leads to imprisonment by the time they reach their early thirties.8 All of these studies control for factors such as parental income and education, which could otherwise distort the association between family structure and child emotional and behavioral outcomes.


As this report points out, social scientific research from the U.S. indicates that children are significantly more likely to be neglected or abused if they are reared in a lone-parent family, compared to an intact-married family. With respect to neglect, studies find that children in lone-parent homes are more likely to be left unattended, to receive insufficient parental oversight, and to be undernourished, compared to children in two-parent families. Even after controlling for factors that increase the risk of abuse, studies indicate that children are also more likely to be physically and sexually abused if they are raised in a lone-parent family.9 For instance, as this report points out, one study found that children living with a lone parent were almost twice as likely to be sexually abused, compared to children living in an intact, married home.


The voluminous literature on family structure from the U.S. suggests a clear conclusion: children raised in intact, married families do significantly better on a range of social, behavioral, and emotional outcomes than children raised in lone-parent families. But are these research findings applicable to a European setting? It might be, for instance, that the generous welfare policies of countries like Sweden and Norway offset or reduce the social, emotional, and economic consequences of lone parenthood.


In fact, research does suggest that the economic consequences of lone parenthood are reduced in countries with large welfare states like Sweden and Norway, where lone mothers are not likely to suffer from poverty.10 But the social and emotional costs of divorce and lone parenthood seem to be about as negative for European children as they are for American children. For instance, one study of the entire population of children in Sweden found that boys who were reared in lone-parent homes were 50 percent more likely to die from a range of causes—such as accidents, suicide, or addiction—than were boys reared in two-parent homes. This same study found that children raised in lone-parent homes were twice as likely as children in two-parent families to attempt suicide, suffer from substance abuse, or depression.11 Another study found no differences in the negative effect of lone parenthood on educational attainment for children living in Sweden and the United States.12


Studies of divorce come to similar conclusions. A study examining the effects of divorce on children in Norway found that children who suffered from divorce were significantly more likely to use illegal drugs, to engage in violent behavior, to be sanctioned for bad behavior in school, and to suffer from poor school performance, compared to children whose parents did not divorce. This same study found that the effects of divorce on Norwegian children were similar to the effects of divorce on American children, despite the fact that Norway has a much more generous welfare state than does the United States. Norwegian psychologists Kyrre Breivik and Dan Olweus write, “our findings suggest that the negative association between divorce and various problem behaviors was found to be basically similar in Norway and the United States.”13 A study of children in the United Kingdom found that children who experienced the divorce of their parents were significantly more likely to suffer from emotional problems such as divorce, anxiety, and obsessions as young adults, compared to children whose parents did not divorce, even after controlling for children’s psychological problems prior to divorce.14


What accounts for the advantage that two parents have over one parent when it comes to child well-being? A large body of research provides a range of explanations for the association between family structure and child well-being, but here I focus on three primary explanations: social networks, the social and emotional support and monitoring of a co-parent, and the quality of parenting.


First, children raised by married parents typically have sustained access to two sets of kin, social, and professional networks, whereas children raised by lone parents typically only have sustained access to one set of these networks.15 Consequently, children raised by two parents, as opposed to one parent, are more likely to draw on the material and emotional support of two sets of grandparents, as well as the social and professional contacts of a father as well as a mother.16


Second, parents generally offer one another support and monitoring when they are engaged in co-parenting. So, if a father sees that the mother of their child is exhausted after a long day of outside work and childcare, he can step in and relieve his wife; similarly, if a wife sees her husband getting angry as he disciplines his children, she can ask him to step back and let her take control of the situation. Thus, two parents can work together to improve the quality of their mutual parenting, whereas a lone parent is more likely to become overwhelmed by the challenges of raising children.17


Finally, in large part because they get more emotional and social support for the work that they do as parents from one another and from kin and friends, married parents are more affectionate and involved with their children; they are also less likely to resort to abusive behavior. Moreover, they are more likely to monitor their children’s activities and friends than are lone parents. Not surprisingly, as this report points out, children report higher-quality relationships with married parents than they do with lone parents.





But what about cohabiting couples? Might a family headed by a cohabiting couple do as well as a married couple in raising children? To answer this question, this report summarizes research conducted in the United States to date on cohabitation and child well-being. This research suggests that the answer to this question is no. The extant literature on cohabitation and child well-being from the U.S. indicates that children reared in the average cohabiting household are less likely to thrive, compared to children in the average married household.


Studies on the behavioral, emotional, and educational welfare of children find clear differences between cohabiting families and marital families. For instance, one study found that adolescents from cohabiting families were significantly more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, compared to adolescents from intact, married families.18 Another study found that teenage children in cohabiting families were significantly more likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems, compared to children in intact married families.19 Compared to children in married families, children from cohabiting families are significantly more likely to be suspended, expelled, or to experience poor academic performance in school, such as difficulties in their relationships with peers and teachers.20 These studies control for a range of socioeconomic factors, and still find that children in cohabiting families do measurably worse than children in married families.


Why are cohabiting families more problematic for children than married families? Cohabitation is not institutionalized to the same degree that marriage is. Consequently, there are fewer norms to provide direction and order to the relationship, compared to marriage.24 This affects the couple in a number of ways. First, cohabitation does not have the same normative association with lifelong commitment and sexual fidelity as does marriage; not surprisingly, cohabiting couples report lower levels of commitment and sexual fidelity compared to married couples.25 Second, cohabiting partners often disagree about their view of the relationship—some view it as a prelude to marriage, others as an alternative to marriage, others as an economically convenient form of dating, and still others as a way to test for compatibility.26Lower levels of commitment associated with cohabitation, and confusion about the status and direction of the relationship, means that cohabiting mothers are less likely to receive material and social support from their parents and other relatives, compared to married couples.27


The lack of normative commitment, relationship clarity, and social support for cohabitation also helps explain why cohabiting relationships are significantly less stable than married relationships. As this report indicates, one U.S. study found that a child born to a married couple had a 15 percent risk that her parents would break up in her first five years of life; a child born to a cohabiting couple had a 50 percent risk that her parents would break up in the first five years of her life.28 Another U.S. study found that fully three-quarters of children born into cohabiting unions will see their parents break up before age sixteen.29 By contrast, a clear majority of children born to married parents in the U.S. will spend their entire childhood with both parents in an intact household.30


But are these studies from the U.S. really generalizable to the European experience with cohabitation? Scholars do not yet know if children born to cohabiting couples in Europe suffer more than children born to married couples in Europe. But European family scholarship does indicate that children who are raised by cohabiting parents experience more instability than children who are raised by married parents. One recent survey of Western countries (with a largely European sample) by demographer Patrick Heuveline found “in most countries that children born to cohabiting parents are two to four times more likely to see their parents separate than are children of parents married at the time of birth.”31 Some countries see even more instability in cohabiting households. In Spain, for instance, children born to cohabiting couples are six times more likely to see their parents break up than children born to married parents.32


Because family instability is strongly associated with behavioral, academic, and emotional problems among children, these demographic trends strongly suggest that European children who are raised in cohabiting households will be more likely to suffer harm than children raised in married households.33 Indeed, not only is this instability bad for children because it prevents them from building and maintaining a stable emotional bond with one or two caregivers, it is also bad for them because it can place them directly in harm’s way, as this report points out.34


Specifically, children who experience high levels of instability are much more likely to be neglected, physically abused, and sexually abused, for at least three reasons. First, these children tend to seek out attention and emotional support from unrelated adults, which makes them more vulnerable to sexual predators. Secondly, family instability often brings unrelated adults, especially males, into the household who are more likely to physically or sexually abuse them. Finally, and most importantly, their primary caretaker is often distracted (romantically or otherwise) by the loss of a partner, a breakup with a partner, or the search for a new partner.35 For instance, a recent U.S. study of child mortality found that preschool children in cohabiting households were almost 50 times more likely to be killed than children in intact, married families, largely because these children were being exposed to an unrelated adult male in their household.36


But even if there is not yet any definitive evidence that European children do worse in cohabiting households, there is compelling evidence that the spread of cohabitation is leading to increases over time in lone parenthood in countries across the European continent. Some European family scholars have dismissed recent increases in nonmarital childbearing as unimportant because they assumed that cohabiting couples would replace married couples in providing a stable, two-parent home for children. But the research of Hueveline and his colleagues on Western demographic trends indicates that increases in nonmarital childbearing and the percentage of children born into cohabiting unions are both associated with increases in lone motherhood, largely because cohabiting unions are less stable than married unions. “[W]hile children who do not live with married biological parents could in principle live in other two-adult families, most do not or do so only temporarily,” observes Hueveline et al.37 In other words, “[p]erhaps the only universal Western trend is that childrearing is being shifted from married parents to single mothers more than to cohabiting parents, stepfamilies, or single fathers.”38 So, even if the jury is still out on the consequences for individual children of being raised by cohabiting versus married parents, the broader, environmental consequences of increases in cohabitation across the continent look disturbing. For the rise in European cohabitation seems to lead ineluctably to increases in lone parenthood, and we know that lone parenthood poses a threat to the well-being of children in European societies such as Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.





In the last 40 years, marriage has lost substantial ground as the primary institution for the bearing and rearing of children in the West. The causes of this retreat from marriage are myriad—secularization, unprecedented affluence, androgynous feminism, changes in family law and tax policy that have undercut marriage’s unique status, and so on39 —and some scholars now believe that the cultural, economic, and political forces arrayed against marriage in the West are so powerful as to make resistance to this retreat futile.40 In parts of the West, they may be right.


But the West’s experience with family decline tells us a cautionary tale: From Oslo to Ottawa, from London to Los Angeles, children, adults, and communities suffer when marriage loses its institutional power. For this reason, we must do all in our power to strengthen marriage and to resist the forces, largely from the West, that would seek to abolish the institution of marriage. Sadly, many Western elites are blind to the social scientific evidence mounting in front of their very eyes – that is, from places like Sweden, Norway, and England – showing that a strong and healthy marriage culture is vital to the social, economic, and psychological welfare of our society’s most vulnerable members—children. If we wish to bequeath humane and well-ordered societies to posterity, we need to think creatively and act quickly to renew the institution of marriage. For, as this report makes clear, the future of the societies throughout the West depends in no small part on the quality and stability of the unions between the mothers and the fathers of the next generation.


Click here to view the associated PowerPoint presentation.


* W. Bradford Wilcox is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University. Wilcox, who is also the lead author of Why Marriage Matters, has published on marriage, fatherhood, and parenting in academic journals such as the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, and the Journal of Marriage and Family. Professor Wilcox holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University. Portions of this essay are adapted from W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Wilson, 2006. “Bringing Up Baby: Adoption, Marriage, and the Best Interests of the Child.” Bill of Rights Journal 14: 883-908.


1. Council of Europe, 2004. Recent Demographic Developments in Europe. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. P. 68.

2. Kathleen Kiernan, 2004. “Unmarried Cohabitation and Parenthood: Here to Stay? European Perspectives,” in D.P. Moynihan, T. N. Smeeding, and L. Rainwater (eds.) The Future of the Family (New York, NY: Russell Sage). P. 76.

3. Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim, 2002. Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences. London: Sage.

4. Kristin Anderson Moore, Susan M. Jekielek, and Carol Emig, 2002. “Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can Be Done About It?” Research Brief, June 2002. (Washington, DC: Child Trends). P. 6.

5. Paul Amato, 2005. “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” The Future of Children 15: 76-96. P. 78.

6. Robert L. Flewelling and Karl E. Bauman, 1990. “Family Structure as a Predictor of Initial Substance Use and Sexual Intercourse in Adolescence.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52: 171-181.

7. See, e.g., Chris Coughlin and Samuel Vuchinich, 1996. “Family Experience in Preadolescence and the Development of Male Delinquency.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58: 491-501; and, Robert Sampson and J.H. Laub, 1994. “Urban Poverty and the Family Context of Delinquency: A New Look at Structure and Process in a Classic Study.” Child Development 65: 523-540.

8. Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan, 2004. “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14: 369-397.

9. Robin Fretwell Wilson, 2001. “Children at Risk: The Sexual Exploitation of Female Children After Divorce,” Cornell Law Review 86: 101-174.

10. Shelley Phipps, 1999. An International Comparison of Policies and Outcomes for Young Children. Ottawa, Canada: Renouf Publishing.

11. Gunilla Ringback Weitoft, Anders Hjern, Bengt Haglung, and Mans Rosen, 2003. “Mortality, Severe Morbidity, and Injury in Children Living with Single Parents in Sweden: A Population-Based Study.” The Lancet 36: 289-295.

12. Anders Bjorklund, Donna K. Ginther, and Marianne Sundstrom, 2002. “Family Structure and Children’s Educational Attainment: A Comparison of Outcomes in Sweden and the United States.” Paper presented at the ESPE-meetings in Bilbao.

13. Kyrre Breivik and Dan Olweus, 2006. “Children of Divorce in a Scandinavian Welfare State: Are They Less Affected than U.S. Children?” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 47: 61-74. P. 71.

14. Andrew Cherlin, P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, and Christine McRae, 1998. “Effects of Parental Divorce on Mental Health thoughout the Life Course.” American Sociological Review 63: 239-249.

15. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, 1994. Growing Up With a Single Parent. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Pp. 3-4, 116-133.

16. Ibid. Paula Roberts, 2004. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love: Would Poor Couples With Children Be Better Off Economically If They Married?” CLASP Policy Brief 5: August.

17. McLanahan and Sandefur, Pp. 38, 135-136.

18. Wendy D. Manning and Kathleen A. Lamb, 2003. “Adolescent Well-Being in Cohabiting, Married, and Single-Parent Families.” Journal of Marriage and Family 65: 876-893.

19. Susan L. Brown, 2004. “Family Structure and Child Well-Being: The Significance of Parental Cohabitation.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 351-367.

20. Manning and Lamb.

21. Sandra Hofferth and Kermyt Anderson, 2003. “Are All Dads Equal? Biology Versus Marriage as a Basis for Paternal Involvement.” Journal of Marriage and Family 65: 213-232.

22. Manning and Lamb.

23. Hofferth and Anderson.

24. Steven L. Nock, 1995. “A Comparison of Marriages and Cohabiting Relationships.” Journal of Family Issues 16: 53-76. Pp. 54, 74 .

25. Steven Nock, 1995. “A Comparison of Marriages and Cohabiting Relationships,” Journal of Family Issues 16: 53-76; R. Forste and K. Tanfer, 1996. “Sexual Exclusivity among Dating, Cohabiting and Married Women,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58: 33-47.

26. Wendy D. Manning and Pamela J. Smock, 2002. “First Comes Cohabitation, Then Comes Marriage?” Journal of Family Issues 23: 1065-1087.

27. Robert Lerman, 2002. Impacts of Marital Status and Parental Presence on the Material Hardship of Families with Children. (Washington, DC: Urban Institute).

28. Pamela J. Smock and Wendy D. Manning, 2004. “Living Together Unmarried in the United States: Demographic Perspectives and Implications for Family Policy.” Law and Policy 26: 87-117. Wendy D. Manning, Pamela J. Smock, and Debarum Majumdar, 2004. “The Relative Stability of Cohabiting and Marital Unions for Children.” Population Research and Development Review 23: 135-159.

29. Larry Bumpass and Hsien-Hen Lu, 2000. Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children’s Family Contexts in the United States, Population Studies 54: 29-41.

30. Ibid.

31. Patrick Heuveline, Jeffrey Timberlake, and Frank Furstenberg, 2003. “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results from 17 Western Countries.” Population and Development Review 29: 47-71. P. 57.

32. Ibid. P. 56.

33. Manning and Lamb.

34. Manning and Lamb.

35. Manning and Lamb; Smock and Manning; Pamela Smock, 2000. “Cohabitation in the United States: An Appraisal of Research Themes, Findings, and Implications.” Annual Review of Sociology 26:1-20; and, Wilson.

36. Patricia G. Schnitzer and Bernard G. Ewigman, 2005. “Child Deaths Resulting from Inflicted Injuries: Household Risk Factors and Perpetrator Characteristics.” Pediatrics 116: e687-e693.

37. Hueveline et al. P. 66.

38. Ibid, p. 49.

39. Surkyn and Lesthaeghe. Allan Carlson, 2006. “The De-Institutionalization of Marriage.” The Family in America. 20: Issue 2/3.

40. Larry Bumpass, 1990. “What’s Happening to the Family?” Demography 27: 483-498. Scott Coltrane, 2001. “Marketing the Marriage ‘Solution’: Misplaced Simplicity in the Politics of Fatherhood.” Sociological Perspectives 44: 387-418.