Written by Lori Lowe
My last post shared benefits to the adults who choose to stay married. Even more plentiful are studies showing how children are positively affected—emotionally, sexually, mentally, and physically—when their parents are married as opposed to single or cohabiting.
Research shows* that in the U.S. cohabitors resemble singles more than they resemble married couples as their unions are much less stable. One study showed that half of the children born to a cohabiting couple saw their parents split by the time they were five. The number was even higher for Latino or African-Americans. For married couples, there was a 15% split during the same time period.
Another study found that even after controlling for socioeconomic and parenting factors, teenagers who lived in cohabiting households experienced more behavioral and emotional difficulties than those in intact, married families.
Married parents devote more of their financial resources to child rearing and education than do cohabiting parents, whereas cohabiting parents spent a larger percentage of their income on alcohol and tobacco. In the study, cohabiting couples had lower incomes and education levels. They also reported more conflict and violence and lower satisfaction levels.
Marriage has not only social effects on children, but also biosocial consequences. For example, researchers believe a father’s pheromones appear to inhibit their daughter’s sexual development when he lives in the home with her, while an unrelated male living in the home accelerates her development. When a girl has earlier sexual development, she is more likely to become sexually active earlier and is at higher risk of teen pregnancies.
Boys also benefit from married parents. Boys in unmarried families carry out more delinquent acts. Boys in single-parent homes are about twice as likely, and boys in stepfamilies are 2½ times more likely, to commit a crime leading to jail time by their 30s. Boys in cohabiting families have been found to be more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior, cheating, and have more school suspensions. When a boy lives with his mother and her boyfriend, the boyfriend is more likely to be abusive than his own father.
Additional research has suggested children with two married parents have better health and a longer life expectancy than other children. This benefit starts in infancy, and remains a lifelong benefit.
It is tempting to suggest the difference is due to socioeconomic status or education levels, but many studies adjust for these factors. One such study followed academically gifted, middle-class children for 70 years. Researchers controlled for family background and childhood health status, and even personality characteristics. They found children of divorce had life expectancy reduced by five years. They also found that 40-year-old men whose parents had divorced were three times more likely to die in the next 40 years than were 40-year-old men whose parents remained married.
Even babies have a lower risk of mortality when born to married parents than if they are born to unmarried parents. The average increase in infant mortality is 50 percent for unmarried women. After controlling for age, race and education, infants with unwed mothers still have a higher mortality rate, even through early childhood years.
Sweden has a national health care system for all its citizens. But a study of the entire Swedish population showed boys who lived in single-parent homes were more than 50 percent more likely to die of various causes (i.e. suicide, accidents, addiction) than those in a married, two-parent home. Boys and girls in single-parent families were more than twice as likely to have problems with drug or alcohol abuse, psychiatric diseases or suicide attempts. They were also more likely to experience poisonings, traffic injuries or falls than teens in two-parent families.
Yet another U.S. study shows teens who live with their married parents are less likely to experiment with drugs alcohol or tobacco than other teens—even after controlling for age, race, gender, and family income.
Mental health of children was also affected when parents split up. Children of divorce have double the risk of serious psychological problems later in life than children with parents who stay married. They are more likely to suffer from depression, drug and alcohol abuse, or suicidal thoughts. The exception is when a marriage has “high and sustained” conflict levels; these children benefit psychologically if the parents divorce.
I imagine you get the picture that marriage has been shown in lots of research to protect children in myriad ways. Let me just share the most shocking statistics for those of you still with me. It is hard to imagine for parents who love their children (and stepchildren), but children who do not live with their own two parents are at much higher risk of child abuse. Living with a stepparent is the most significant factor in severe child abuse. Children are more than 50 times more likely to be murdered by a stepparent (usually a stepfather) than by a biological parent. A different study showed stepchildren were 40 times more likely to be sexually abused than a child living with both of his biological parents. A national study found that 7 percent of children who lived with one parent had been sexually abused, compared to 4 percent of children who live with both parents.
Clearly, not all children who are raised in divorced or single homes will have the above challenges, but parents should be aware of these increased risks when making decisions about the family. As a society we need to understand that strong, healthy marriages have been proven to help ensure the safety and security of children.
*Information on these studies can be found in “Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition” by the Institute for American Values.