Population Research and Policy Review 23: 135–159, 2004.
© 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
The relative stability of cohabiting and marital unions for
WENDY D. MANNING
, PAMELA J. SMOCK
Department of Sociology & Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green
State University, Ohio, USA;
Department of Sociology & Population Studies Center, The
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA;
Department of Sociology, Southwest
Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas, USA
Abstract. Children are increasingly born into cohabiting parent families, but we know little to
date about the implications of this family pattern for children’s lives. We examine whether chil-
dren born into premarital cohabitation and ﬁrst marriages experience similar rates of parental
disruption, and whether marriage among cohabiting parents enhances union stability. These
issues are important because past research has linked instability in family structure with lower
levels of child well-being. Drawing on the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, we ﬁnd
that white, black and Hispanic children born to cohabiting parents experience greater levels
of instability than children born to married parents. Moreover, black and Hispanic children
whose cohabiting parents marry do not experience the same levels of family stability as those
born to married parents; among white children, however, the marriage of cohabiting parents
raises levels of family stability to that experienced by children born in marriage. The ﬁndings
from this paper contribute to the debate about the beneﬁts of marriage for children.
Keywords: Children, Cohabitation, Divorce, Family structure, Marriage, Race and ethnicity
Cohabitation has become an increasingly common family form in the United
States. Over half of young adults have cohabited, and cohabitation is now the
typical path to marriage (Bumpass & Lu 2000; Bumpass 1998). While co-
habitation is popularly viewed as a childless union, increasingly children are
being born or raised in cohabiting parent families (Casper & Bianchi 2002;
Manning 2001; Bumpass & Lu 2000). Estimates suggest that approximately
two-ﬁfths of all children will live in a cohabiting family at some point before
adulthood (Bumpass & Lu 2000).
Despite the increase in children’s experience of cohabitation, relatively
little is known about the implications of cohabitation for children’s well-being
(Manning 2002; Smock 2000). One fundamental dimension of well-being
to evaluate is the relative stability of cohabitation and marriage from the
viewpoint of children. A large body of literature demonstrates that family
An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the National Council
on Family Relations in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 11 November 2000.