The share of births to cohabiting couples has increased dramatically in recent decades. How we evaluate the implications of these increases depends critically on change in the stability of cohabiting families. This study examines change over time in the stability of U.S. couples who have a child together, drawing on data from the 1995 and 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). We parse out the extent to which change in the stability of cohabiting and married families reflects change in couples’ behavior versus shifts in the characteristics of those who cohabit, carefully accounting for trajectories of cohabitation and marriage around the couple’s first birth. Multivariate event history models provide evidence of a weakening association between cohabitation and instability given that marriage occurs at some point before or after the couple’s first birth. The more recent data show statistically indistinguishable separation risks for couples who have a birth in marriage without ever cohabiting, those who cohabit and then have a birth in marriage, and those who have a birth in cohabitation and then marry. Cohabiting unions with children are significantly less stable when de-coupled from marriage, although the parents in this group also differ most from others on observed (and likely, unobserved) characteristics.
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The NSFG has historically been a survey of women, but men were added as of 2002. Unfortunately for our purposes, the 2002 round contained an error in skip patterns, resulting in substantial missing data on dates of marital separation (Kennedy and Bumpass 2008). We thus rely on data on women from 1995 and 2006–2010 NSFGs, which span rapid increases in cohabiting fertility.
We focus on union status transitions around the time of birth, without accounting separately for transitions during pregnancy. Most transitions during pregnancy now involve cohabitation as opposed to marriage, and couples cohabiting at birth differ little in their subsequent relationship stability and demographic characteristics by whether they transitioned into cohabitation before or after conception (Rackin and Gibson-Davis 2012).
In results not shown, main findings are insensitive to the inclusion of multiple unions.
In 1995, partners’ prior marriages were ascertained for only a subset of unions, and no information was collected on partners’ children from prior relationships or past cohabitations. In 2006–2010, women were asked about partners’ previous marriages and children from prior relationships, but not about past cohabitations.
In supplementary models run on the 2006–2010 data only (available upon request), we found that additional measures of partners’ prior marriages and children were not statistically significant and did not change the estimated coefficients on marriage and cohabitation.
Without controls, these differences are on the order of four to five times, with estimates showing more than one-half of cohabiting couples in both periods separating within five years (estimates available upon request).
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Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America in San Francisco, CA and the CDE 50th Anniversary Symposium at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in October, 2012. We thank Sheela Kennedy, Daniel Lichter, I-Fen Lin, Pamela Smock, Lawrence Wu, and the Demography editorial team and anonymous reviewers for many helpful comments and suggestions on this work.
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Musick, K., Michelmore, K. Change in the Stability of Marital and Cohabiting Unions Following the Birth of a Child. Demography 52, 1463–1485 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-015-0425-y
- Nonmarital childbearing
- Union dissolution
- Family stability