wedding ringsYesterday the Alpha Parent wrote a piece entitled “Why Married Parents are Better Parents” (see here).  Needless to say quite a few people got upset by the piece.  It was not a look at married versus single parents though she quickly pointed out that most research shows “two parents are better than one” (we’ll discuss this below too), but rather she focused on the issue between marriage and simple cohabitation.

I’m not going to argue with the stats she cited because she didn’t misstate them (you can see her piece for all the citations, I won’t repeat them here).  It’s true that:

  • Men and women generally commit differently; women via cohabitation, men via marriage
  • Unmarried parents to children under 5 are twice as likely to split up compared to married parents
  • 30% of children in unmarried but cohabitating family units experience a family structure change between 9- and 24-months (compared to 2% of children in married family units)
  • Cohabitators who never marry are worse-off financially, with 78% less income than a married family (yet it’s not a reason not to marry)
  • Child poverty rate is 5 times higher in cohabitating families relative to married families
  • Some research suggests relationship quality decreases more in cohabitating couples than in married couples
  • Cohabitating couples tend to have lower relationship quality and more disagreements
  • Children of cohabitating families often have less access and less emotional ties to extended family
  • In childhood and adolescents, children in cohabitating families are approximately 5-6 times more likely to have emotional and/or behavioral problems; they are also more likely to have academic difficulties
  • Cohabitating relationships are more likely to become violent and even more likely to  experience “severe” domestic violence
  • Children in cohabitating relationships are more likely to experience child abuse (and yes, it’s biological families)

With all this, why am I calling it out?  I love science and science has told us a lot about cohabitating relationships, right?

Not really.

One of the biggest problems in social science research is the ability to properly define a variable.  Health outcomes are easy – you’re sick or you’re not, you had a c-section or didn’t, you were diagnosed with depression or not – but social?  It’s harder because the constructs are more elusive.  It’s why we end up with the third variable problem: We think we’re assessing real relationships and then discover that really it’s another variable that is related to what we think we’re measuring that matters.

I said I would talk about the single parenting issue and though I’ve spoken about it before (see here), here we go: The issue really comes down to support.  What researchers are measuring in much of the research on single versus two-parent households is the degree of support: Emotional, financial, and practical.  It’s harder for many single parents to have the level of support that two parent households often have, but there are cases in which single parents are surrounded with support from extended family and friends and two parent households suffer from a lack of all kinds of support.  If you want to compare outcomes, you should really be looking at the degree of support people have.  (Even then though you’ll get your risk analysis information but it won’t dictate the outcomes because outcomes are influenced by more than just that.)  It just so happens that measuring the number of parents in a house is easier than trying to fully establish one’s support network and because of the high (but imperfect) correlation between the two, researchers continue to do what is easiest.

In the current case, I would argue what is really being assessed is commitment.  Families – no matter what they look like – who are committed to each other and their family through thick and thin are going to have better outcomes.  And more often than not (but not always) commitment in our society ends in marriage (when it’s allowed).  It just so happens that measuring commitment is rather difficult so the easiest alternative is to look at marriage.  Another way to look at it is this: Do you believe that any relationship would improve simply by getting married?  No, and arguably the divorce rate tells us as much.   But because the issue isn’t about marriage per se, but rather a co-occurring phenomenon (i.e., commitment), we can no longer say that married parents are “better” parents, can we?   That statement implies there is something about the marriage that makes people better parents when in reality the issue is often the commitment level to the relationship on is in, whether it’s a married relationship or not.

The question now should become why do families without this level of commitment end up with such higher risks of negative outcomes?  Especially the children.  I could hypothesize on the reasons for pages – from the resentment that may emerge from this lack of commitment expressing itself as frequent fights and even violence (which we know affects child outcomes) to the anger at the child for “keeping” someone in a relationship they aren’t committed to and don’t care about – but I will leave that for other researchers and other discussions.

At the end of the day what we need to be clear on is that when we compare two-parent households, married parents aren’t inherently better parents.  But arguably committed parents are.

 [Image Credit: By Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]