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New Study Finds Harmful Effects on Children When Parents Live Common-Law

OTTAWA, March 13, 2009 ( – A new study by Dr. Frank Jones, Research Fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) has found that marriage benefits children in ways that parents living together in a common-law relationship does not, and that children from common-law homes are more likely to engage in risky behavior. (See:

Using data from Statistics Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, the study examined children of married and cohabiting parents at ages six to eleven and again, eight years later, at ages fourteen to nineteen, measuring responses to forty questions about attitudes and behaviors based on family structure.

The study found that teens who as children had parents living common-law were more likely than teens of married parents to smoke, to be involved in drug dealing, to have a lower age of sexual initiation and engage in sexual intercourse, to have poor relationships with their parents, and to have parents who have a poor relationship with each other.

The reasons for these differences were attributed to three aspects of the dissimilarity between married couples and cohabiting couples:

First, married couples in the study were more likely to be more highly educated, older, have more informal educational experiences and were more likely to be religious. These attributes among parents were associated with the lower likelihood of teens to abuse drugs, to delay sexual initiation and to report being happier with life. Previous studies have found that common-law couples tend to be younger and less religious.

Second, common-law unions are less stable than married relationships. In the study sample, 49 percent of children age six to nine with common-law parents lived with only one biological parent in the home. On the other hand, 94 percent of children age six to nine with married parents had both biological parents in the home. An related American study found that unwed parents have high rates of union dissolution and experience significantly more partner changes, which increases stress on children and may lead to increases in behavioral problems.

Finally, common-law parents may be less committed to raising children because no binding commitment has been made to the partner or the resulting children. Dr. Jones refers to a study by American sociologist Bradford Wilcox, who reported that married fathers are more likely to demonstrate affection to their wives and families than cohabitating men.

The study concludes that the increased likelihood of teens engaging in risky behaviors should be of concern not only to parents, but to the education system, community social programs, justice and healthcare systems, which bear the burden of dealing with the consequences of teens with behavioral problems.

Dr. Jones points out that highlighting the difference between marriage and cohabitation is not a condemnation of those who choose not to marry, but a recognition that marriage offers unique societal benefits.

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