Why Chinese couples, including those in Hong Kong, are right to choose marriage over cohabitation

W. Bradford Wilcox says research shows that children are far more likely to prosper in stable families, and a relationship cemented by marriage vows is likely to last longer

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 May, 2017, 4:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 May, 2017, 7:52pm

Across the West – from the UK to the US, and from Canada to Chile – cohabitation is on the march and marriage is in retreat. One indication of cohabitation’s advance: in all these countries, more than 20 per cent of children are born to cohabiting couples. As of now, however, cohabitation has not established a major beachhead in East Asia, especially when it comes to childbearing. The share of children born to cohabiting couples in East Asia – including mainland China and Hong Kong – is negligible. That’s good news.

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We can debate the merits of cohabitation for adults. Some believe it’s a good way to maximise your freedom before settling down or to test the waters before marriage, all in ways that pose no risk to your future marital prospects. Others think it can prematurely lock you into a suboptimal relationship or degrade your capacity to commit to a marriage down the road.

But if we put aside thinking about adults and focus instead on the welfare of children, the case for not combining cohabitation and children looks strong. That’s because, at least in the West, cohabitation has proved much less stable than marriage as a context for the bearing and raising of children. In a recent report for the Social Trends Institute, “The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe”, my co-authors and I found that children born to cohabiting couples in Europe and America are about 90 per cent more likely to see their parents break up, compared to children born to married parents, even after controlling for a range of background factors. Moreover, this general pattern holds true in countries as different as the United States, Britain, Italy and Norway.

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What’s more, when we looked at trends in more than 60 countries across the globe – from South Africa to Mexico – we found that family instability generally increases in countries as cohabitation advances. In these countries, over the past two decades or so, every percentage point increase in the share of children born to cohabiting couples was linked to a decline of 0.27 percentage points in the share of children living with both biological parents around the age of 12. In other words, as marriage loses ground, boys and girls are more likely to be exposed to family instability and single parenthood.

Freedom and flexibility also translate into less commitment, less trust, less fidelity and, especially, less stability

Of course, cohabitation is increasingly popular because it provides men and women with more freedom and flexibility in their relationships. But freedom and flexibility also translate into less commitment, less trust, less fidelity and, especially, less stability. And from a child’s perspective, that’s all bad news.

Research in the US indicates that children in cohabiting families are more likely to drop out of high school, use drugs and suffer from depression, even after controlling for background factors. And the instability more likely to characterise cohabiting families in Europe is also linked to worse outcomes for children. A study of parental breakups across 14 European countries found that children from non-intact families have a probability of achieving a university degree that is on average 7 percentage points lower than that of children from intact families. Children in Norway were more likely to get in trouble in school and engage in violent behaviour if their parents’ union dissolved, according to another study.

In much of the developed world, children are more likely to thrive when they are raised in an intact, two-parent family. Based on the recent experience of the West, it looks like marriage is much more likely than cohabitation to deliver the stability, security, and ready financial and emotional support of two parents to kids across much of the globe. And given, as Confucius taught, “the strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home”, Hong Kong and mainland China should stand strong in resisting the advance of cohabitation. This is one Western invention that’s well worth rejecting.

W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies. He is due to give a talk, Cohabitation Around the Globe, on Tuesday evening at the University of Hong Kong