Marriage, Cohabitation, and Kids

Andrew Cherlin has a new book coming out today called The Marriage-Go-Round. He’s a first-rate sociologist, and so I’m looking forward to reading it. But for now, he’s teasing us with the following striking fact:

Take two children, one growing up with married parents in the United States, and one growing up with unmarried parents in Sweden; which child has the higher likelihood of seeing his parents’ relationship break up? Answer: the American kid, because children living with married parents in the United States have a higher probability of experiencing a breakup than do children living with unmarried parents in Sweden. That’s how high our breakup rates are.

Amazing. And yet our politicians continue to debate whether to promote formal legal institution of marriage, rather than addressing family life as it is lived. Much more in the full interview with Cherlin, here.


nevertheless it is important to promote formal legal institution of marriage, as it is the State's role to foster functional, stable environs in which to raise children, and to subsidize the institution accordingly

Ken Arromdee

Is that conclusion corrected for differences in socioeconomic status?


He might be a great sociologist, but he's not a very good writer. The quote you gave basically says, "Which is more likely, X or Y? It's X, because X is more likely than Y."

This would be better worded as a simple statement of fact than a question which he answers.

Tony in NOLA

Rather than trying to prevent gay marriage, those who are so worried about the decline of marriage should consider making divorce illegal.


It has something to do, I think, with the commodification of marriage and romance in the US, along with the kind of religious teachings that convince people to marry first and have an adult relationship second, rather than the other way around. The expectations are so huge, and the rings so expensive! The attitude towards adultery is different too - Americans are far more likely to leave their spouse for screwing around than Europeans are - in a culture where many women consider masturbation to be cheating, well, what can we expect?

Allen Reynolds

Amazing? No. Stupid? Yes.
Compare an American child with married parents with an American child with cohabitating parents, and see with one is more likely to have an intact family. The one with married parents - duh.

The point that the US divorce rate is higher than the Swedish cohabitation-breakup rate is interesting but irrelevant. Sweden is full of Swedish people. If you compare the divorce rates of Swedish people in the United States with that of the country as a whole, you will find that it is lower.

Given that we can't all be Swedish, what's the solution? Mr. Wolfers thinks it's to forget the whole marriage thing, and just focus on whomever's living with whom. I think we've kind of been trying that. It hasn't worked so well.

How about equipping people to resolve issues in their marriage? How about stopping economic and work policies that make marriage more difficult? How about staying together for the sake of the kids, instead of a culture that makes personal fulfillment preeminent?



How about some actual statistics on American children with cohabiting parents, rather than your assumptions?

How about a world view that doesn't equate people from another country with beings from another species? Maybe we can't be swedish, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from them.


"Marriage" is simply a body of laws. Laws that have changed from decade to decade by human lawmakers. Some people may tell you it's an end in itself, and ordained by God, etc. but unless the Almighty judges over your divorce-trial and personally decides on your division of assets and alimony orders, then it ain't so.

Those who respond with a knee jerk reaction to Mr Cherlin's frank observations (the data don't lie) should think about that. Call "Togetherness" by any name, but it looks as if the way the Swedes have learned to do it is working better than how we are currently doing it in this country lately.

Jeffrey Trapnell

I am a firm believer that if parents do break up and there is a child involved; the child should be maintained in a single residence and the parents should shuttle their lives back and forth around the child.

A break up while good for the parents, is not good for the child that is shuttled between two separate households, two separate rules, two separate neighborhoods / friends / school.

If a person is responsible to have a child but unable to fulfill a marriage responsibilty why punish the child? Who becomes the fall out of society? What are we teaching the children of divorced parents about a "normal" family life when it involves living in two different households.

Let me clarify my thoughts. I have two adopted children. The process to adopt was intrusive into every aspect of our life and history. To qualify for fit parents for an adoption it was either open up or there would be no adoption. No one will ever convince me that normal ovaries and good sperm counts make better parents.


T Student

How many countries did he compare to the US until he found Sweden? This could very easily be just by chance


There's no exterior social benefit to marriage.


@Allen: there are numerous false assumptions in your comment. First, there is no reason to necessarily believe that cohabitation breakup rates in the US are lower than marriage divorce rates; they've been getting closer to each other every year. Second, there is no reason to necessarily believe that divorce rates of first-generation Swedish immigrants in the US are lower than the average American, but even if there is, that number should really be compared to other immigrants, rather than Americans, because the dynamics of immigration is the common experience; comparing couples who have grown up and live in one culture with couples who have grown up and live in another actually makes more sense.

@frankenduf: Really? I think the study illustrates that it is not marriage per se that is a stabilizing influence, but rather it is the meaning of couplehood to the people taking part in a long-term relationship that is the real key. Marriage, as we see, is not necessarily a "stable" environment after all, so I'm not sure how promoting it fixes the basic problems.



It's too freakin' cold in Sweden to be alone.

Caca Fuego

Wolfers's and each of the commenters' conclusions (including my own) from this datum are clearly colored by the glasses each is wearing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, unless one thinks s/he is being totally objective, but it is more evidence that (a) there is no such thing as a brute fact, a real datum apart from our interpretation, and (b) sociology is not a hard science, however hard it may try.


As many gay-rights activists point out, marriage has a function beyond stabilizing home lives and raising children.

From a purely functional standpoint, marriage indicates to the state that a formal union has taken place; that has tax implications and legal implications (such as, the hospital visit issue; custody, etc). These arrangements make it very easy for the state to institute procedural actions (estates and so on, even/or legal action) that would otherwise involve costly human analysis.

J. Smith

If religions want to have marriages, of whomever they wish, whatever. But it seems strange to have the government have any sort of say or hand in that. I think all government benefits, special laws, etc. specific to marriages should be struck down, and the government should stop giving out marriage licenses. Allow people to name whomever they want as heirs, power of attorney, whatever else.


I agree with Allen's comment.


I believe having a caring guardian or guardians is more important than the classification of the relationship (if there is one, nothing wrong with single moms). I had many classmates where I used to live who had divorced parents and those who fared well had a more stable and caring home, regardless of parents' marital status.

Legal marriage confers many legal benefits. Makes me wonder if marriage should be abolished outright and everyone who wants one gets a civil union. Unlikely scenario of course, but since singles (people who don't get the hulabaloo over marriage and don't see the point, gays, whatever) are discriminated against in this society, it just seems more equitable.

@Jeffrey - I was directed to some psychology site by this blog and I ended up checking out this book called "Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and it seems that if you're single or not married (not completely the same) people think you're immature and insufferable. That sucks.



As a divorced single mother...I'm with J. Smith. My life is constantly difficult and annoying because of the marriage assumption or that my x spouse has specific rights to my estate and or belongings. When it comes to our children, he has documented rights. The rest of me is none of his business, and yet our business (for the mere fact of having been married at one time) seems to keep getting intertwined.

Let's not even start on the societial pressure for getting re-married....{sigh}

I will likely never marry again since romantic whims and business contracts really don't need to coincide.


Marriage is under a lot of pressure as an institution for the reasons Cherlin mentions: somehow it is still "important" to people, but yet it is increasingly out of step with how we live our lives, and the importance we place on individual fulfillment, particularly in our personal relationships.

Marriage itself is nothing but a body of law, and that law was radically changed with the advent of unilateral no-fault divorce. However, the moniker "marriage" remains an important social badge of honor, hence the reason why marriage rates in the US, while declining, nevertheless are higher than in other western countries.

I fully expect marriage to continue to decline. Women and men alike are unduly constrained by it and are increasingly avoiding the institution, each for different reasons. For women, the burden of the history of marriage, and the many expectations it can bring, is distasteful in itself. For men, the realities of how family law generally plays itself out -- which many younger men have experienced vicariously through their fathers -- can have a chilling effect on the desire to marry. But it's unmistakable that as an institution it's now quite unstable, and in a continuing state of decline.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps it's time for men and women alike to move beyond marriage as a relationship model, and embrace more relationship fluidity and the fact of many partners over a lifetime.