I have some good news and bad news on the marriage front. First, the good news: According to a new study by the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the divorce rate for married couples with children has fallen nearly to the rate of the early 1960s, when JFK was president.
But this news is not as good as it seems. That’s because the bad news nearly cancels it out. Fewer of us are bothering to tie the knot at all. The rate of cohabitation — “living together”— has exploded. The study finds that cohabitation has increased fourteen-fold since 1970. This means that about 24 percent of children are born to cohabiting couples today. Meanwhile, another 20 percent are part of a cohabiting household at some point during their growing-up years.
That means nearly half of all American children have lived in a home where the adults are merely living together rather than married.
Today’s advocates of “modern family structure” will tell you that this is no big deal, that having a wedding ring is overrated. The kids, they say, will do fine either way. Well, the fact is, an intact marriage puts children way ahead of children in other types of households. National Review editor Rich Lowry, who labels the current trend a “cohabitation revolution,” notes, “Children in cohabiting households tend to lag children in intact married families on key social indicators and are not much better off than children in single-parent families.”
Those who are part of cohabiting households, according to the study, report “more conflict, more violence and lower levels of satisfaction and commitment.” Children in such situations face real emotional and physical risks.
Jennifer Roback Morse of the National Organization for Marriage reports that children living with their mother and a live-in boyfriend are 33 times more likely to be abused than those living with their biological married parents. Also, children in households with unrelated adults are 50 times more likely to die from inflicted injuries, compared with children living with both biological parents.
Despite all the well-reported problems of marriage these days, cohabiting relationships are frequently less stable, as well. Lowry says that cohabiting couples with a child are more than twice as likely to break up as married parents. That’s a huge difference.
Lowry says, “Children turn out to benefit from the structure, rituals and identity that come with a lasting marriage between their parents. And the very act of committing to the norms of marriage makes adults better marital partners and parents.”
So why is marriage held in such low regard today, to the point that some people are willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of convenience? Well, one reason might be is that they have not seen what a good marriage looks like. Defending marriage involves more than just talk. Are we Christians committed to showing our neighbors the love, fidelity, and joy that ought to accompany a marriage founded on God and His plan for human flourishing?
Also, when is the last time you heard your pastor give a sermon on the dangers of cohabitation? Is your church doing all it can to prepare young couples for marriage and to help struggling marriages?
If not, then all our advocacy for the importance of marriage is likely to fall on deaf ears. And our nation’s children will be the losers for it.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: September 12, 2011.