The difference between married and "partnered" mothers

Nicole M. King
April 9, 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - U.S. sees rise in unmarried parents

The number of children born to cohabiting couples is rising, and scholars worry about the economic ramifications for children.

Reports the Wall Street Journal, "Just over a quarter of births to women of child-bearing age . . . in the past five years were to cohabiting couples, the highest on record and nearly double the rate from a decade earlier." Among reasons for this increase, the WSJ lists an increased desire for financial stability before tying the knot, and also women's higher levels of education and job-attaining ability, which make "marriage less attractive economically." But the children of such unions, findings show, tend to fare worse socio-economically than do the children of married parents, and the increased instability of such relationships also bodes ill for them.

Research indicates that it is not only the children who suffer, however. Those women who find "marriage less attractive economically" may want to take note of a long list of ills attending cohabiting motherhood.

The New Research - Married or "partnered"? The difference for childbearing women

Yielding to the pressures of political correctness, many social scientists now place married parents in the same analytical category as "partnered" cohabiting parents. But the authors of a large new Canadian study suggest that their colleagues are making a serious error in combining categories in this fashion. For as it turns out, childbearing married women enjoy decided advantages over those who are merely "partnered."

Completed at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, this new study analyzes partner violence, substance abuse, and postpartum depression among childbearing women in differing marital and living circumstances. Such an analysis is necessary, the authors of the study assert, at a time when "births to unmarried women have been steadily increasing." In the upsurge of out-of-wedlock births, the researchers recognize "the emergence of nonmarital cohabitation as a popular living arrangement." However, social scientists struggle to answer questions about how the new popularity of nonmarital cohabitation translates into public-health outcomes. The authors of the new study indeed argue that because of inconsistency in the way those who collect data categorize cohabitation, "it is still unclear . . . how marital status relates to maternal well-being and reproductive outcomes" in today's fast-evolving social world. Uncertainty particularly surrounds the question of "whether the association of duration of cohabitation and maternal well-being, if any, is different between married and cohabiting women."

To address this question, the researchers scrutinize data collected in 2006 and 2007 from a cross-sectional nationwide sample of 6,421 childbearing Canadian women, a sample statistically weighted so as to be representative of 76,500 Canadian women. These data coalesce into a pattern clearly favoring married women. Compared to married peers, "divorced and separated women were more likely to report intimate partner violence, substance use, and postpartum depression." The data likewise indicate that "single, never-married women were . . . at higher risk" for the three types of problems in view, particularly partner violence and substance abuse. Elevated risk of partner violence and substance abuse also shows up in the data for nonmaritally cohabiting women, especially those who had been cohabiting with their partners a relatively short period of time. For the married women in their study, the researchers conclude that "the protective effect of marriage seemed to operate regardless of the length of cohabitation."

To further clarify the "protective effect of marriage," the Canadian researchers statistically compare women who had been living with a husband more than five years with unmarried women who had been cohabiting with a partner less than two years. Even after making statistical adjustments for maternal age, education, ethnicity, and household income, the researchers find that married women are separated from the cohabiting women by Adjusted Odds Ratios of almost 5 for partner violence, over 5 for substance abuse, and almost 2 for postpartum depression.

No doubt, progressive True Believers will continue to argue that nonmarital cohabitation constitutes the functional equivalent of wedlock. Consequently, some social scientists will combine cohabiting partners and married couples in the same analytical category. But the authors of this new study have strong empirical justification when they say that they "do not support the practice of including cohabiting and married women within the same group" and when they call for "a finer typology of unions [that] allows better identification of women at risk for psychosocial problems."