October 23, 2003


Trend to live together, not marry, puts kids at risk (USA Today, 10/20/03)

USA TODAY research this month showing that civil marriages are increasing while church weddings are declining raises questions about which type of marriage is better. The answer from family researchers: Whether couples tie the knot in a courthouse or a church is less important than that they are married while raising children.

What worries researchers who study family structures is the growing trend of couples choosing to live together outside of marriage while raising children. Divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates leveled off years ago, but families in which parents cohabit are on a steady climb. More than 40% of all live-in households in 2000 included a child under 18, up from 21% in 1987, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.

While an unmarried mom and dad living together might look like the married couple down the block, unions lacking formal long-term commitments have been found more likely to create problems for kids. Sociologists cite evidence that children raised by live-in parents have a greater likelihood of emotional troubles and poor school performance. A major reason is that unmarried couples are more likely to break up.

Certainly, adults have every right to choose their living arrangements and expect social tolerance of their choices. But when the choices have a negative impact on dependents in their care, the government and other institutions have sound reasons to promote marriage as a social good.

The notion that we need honor these individual choices even though they put children and the health of our society at risk is simply ridiculous. There is an entire range of sensible steps we should take to make the cost of not marrying or of divorcing prohibitive, especially for parents.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 23, 2003 9:59 AM

The logic of your argument appeals to me, Orrin, but then I remember that the Church I was raised in claimed the right to tell me whom to marry.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 23, 2003 3:30 PM

Dismaying to see your link is to the still-ongoing "study" by Judith Wallerstein. Said study, consisting of 131 children of divorced parents has no control group (this is what you had originally characterized as not meeting "rigorous scientific standards"). Beyond this, the story behind how Wallerstein found her original sample of divorcing parents with children has changed from book to book. Her more recent tomes have neglected to mention that she advertised for those couples by offering "divorce counseling"--in short, she selected initially for parents who were not dealing with their divorces very well. In Wallersteins's original book, those parents were a rather disturbed bunch, suffering from a variety of psychological problems.

As essayist Katha Pollitt noted, "In short, what we have here are not generic white suburbanites who threw away workable marriages in order to actualize their human potential in a Marin County hot tub. We have sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy parents, economic insecurity, trapped wives and, as Wallerstein does discuss, lots of violence (one-quarter of the fathers beat their wives; out of the 131 children, thirty-two had witnessed such attacks). How on earth can she claim that divorce is what made her young people's lives difficult? The wonder is that they are doing as well as they are."

I have no doubt that divorce can and does have negative effects on many children. What is not clear, however, is how the effects of divorce compare to the negative effects that precede it.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 23, 2003 5:11 PM


Common sense used to mean something when determining the consequences of one's actions. In the brave new world of intellectual rationalization, which I hope we are beginning to outgrow, it no longer seems to have any weight. Think for a moment about the effect of a divorce on young children. It's not hard to imagine, unless one cannot see beyond their personal, narrow and what they believe to be their immediate self-interest. Properly structured statistical analysis is meaningless in these areas.


Who cares what the "church" claims. It only matters if you believe in their authority. Last I looked, the coercive power of the church was ZERO.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 23, 2003 7:33 PM

The review was interesting, although I don't think the punitive measures therein would have any impact whatsoever (and very difficult to enact in a Republic where the target of your legislative ire is nearly a majority).

Mr. Bulgers comments are very incisive. The problem with any study such as this is the dreaded Range Restriction Error. The population of divorced people does not share all the characteristics of the population of never divorced people. Otherwise, they would not have divorced in the first place. Therefore, the assertions about the damage divorce does to children almost certainly overstate the reality.

Full disclosure: I am the child of divorced parents. It wasn't wonderful, but there are far worse things.

Like losing a parent to death, which probably happened as often a century ago as divorce does today. But our forebears somehow managed to deal with it.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 23, 2003 7:52 PM

Regarding the restrictions:

#6: Perhaps for a "probationary" period of a year or two.

#8: You'd merely see a vast increase in claims of said abuse, and it's already common for such claims to be made.

Tom C.:

You vastly overestimate the damage done to the average child, due to divorce. Average, I say. We can all dredge up marginal cases that illustrate our various points.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 24, 2003 6:52 AM

Tom, I am shocked -- SHOCKED I tell you -- that you dismiss the strength of moral suasion.

Anyhow, the proposal on the table is to use coercion, so if the church was able to do damage without it, then imagine how much more damage the state -- I am shocked, SHOCKED I tell you -- could do.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 24, 2003 3:45 PM


I miss your point. The power of physical coercion will always lie somewhere. In the USA we place it in the limited and defined power of the state. Moral or religious teaching is persuasion not the police power. If human society could operate on moral suasion rather than the police power I think even you would be happy.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 25, 2003 2:05 PM

Well, ask yourself, Am I prepared to be coerced on this?

And if your answer is yes, then who is so placed as to make the decisions about your marriage?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 25, 2003 9:06 PM


You are wrong to analogize divorce to death. Death of a parent can be devastating, but at least the child can understand it wasn't the parent's choice.

Do you remember the Peanuts strip where Charlie Brown and his friends went into a deep funk when they learned their teacher was getting paid--they thought she did it because she loved them. Kids do not understand that they are not the only thing that matters to their parents...and they shouldn't be told that.

Posted by: at October 26, 2003 5:56 AM

Sorry, that was me.

Posted by: Peter Burnet at October 26, 2003 5:57 AM