The growth of non-marital childbearing, including the growth of childbearing within a cohabiting union is associated with more family instability for children: a UK study claims

In recent decades, much of the globe has witnessed a retreat from marriage. This means more children are being born outside of marriage, either to single parents or cohabiting couples, in countries around the world. This social change raises a few questions:

  1. Are such children less likely to enjoy stable family lives?
  2. Is the growth of non-marital childbearing, including the growth of childbearing within a cohabiting union, associated with more family instability for children? 
  3. Are there financial disadvantages impacting children born outside of marriage?

To answer question 2, the Cohabitation-go-round study provides fresh evidence that cohabitation is less likely to deliver such family stability to children, compared to marriage and as the American expert on family and marriage Professor Brad Wilcox said: “We know that children thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers.

Similar comparisons can be made to Australian families because family instability is associated with a host of negative outcomes for children.

While in Australia the rates of living together without marrying are increasing, cohabitation is nevertheless the normative pathway to marriage. While it remains the case that the vast majority of couples in a living-together union are married to each other, cohabitation without marriage appears to have increased by one to three percentage points across each Census year since 1971, reaching 16% in 2011.

Prior to 1997, there was a substantial increase in the proportion of families with children that were headed by a lone parent (father or mother). These proportions were:

  • 12% in 1980
  • 15% in 1990
  • 20% in 1997 and
  • 21% in 2008.

Given the increase in cohabitation rates, changes have also occurred in the marital status of parents. For example, while most lone parents living with dependent children have been married previously, lone parents today are less likely than in the past to have ever been married.

About one in five lone parents living with dependent children in 1986 was never married, compared with around one in three in 2006.

The increase in the proportion of lone parents who have never married does not mean that these parents became lone parents when their children were born. Many of today’s lone parents have separated from a de facto relationship.

For example, recent research in Australia reveals that part of the disadvantage associated with being born to a single mother may be the heighted risk of subsequent union transitions faced by children of single mothers… and union transitions appear to present children with more challenges than merely being reared by a lone parent.

If comparisons can be made to the UK study, and that children are more likely to flounder in unstable families, the spike in children born outside of marriage eludes to the fact that children from cohabiting relationships are more likely to experience parental separation than those living with married parents.

There is also a growing consensus that the number of parental union transitions matters for children above and beyond family structure,  with children being more likely to thrive in stable families and more likely to flounder in unstable ones.


  • DeRose, L. Lyons-Amos, M.; Wilcox, W.B.; and Huarcaya, G. 2017: The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Stability Across the Globe, Social Trends Institute, World Family Map 2017.
  • Families then and now: 1980-2010: Alan Hayes, Ruth Weston, Lixia Qu and Matthew Gray
  • Weston, R., & Qu, L. (2013). Working out relationships (Australian Family Trends No. 3). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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