Married and Unmarried Parents
A Research Summary

David Popenoe, PhD
Professor of Sociology
Rutgers University

The idea is spreading that, if a child has two parents, it makes no difference whether or not those parents are married. Parents are parents, the argument goes, regardless of the possession by some of what is referred to as "just a piece of paper"--the marriage license. But this idea is far from the truth. In general, the relationship of married parents differs significantly from that of unmarried cohabiting parents, and the difference has substantial consequences both for the couple and for their children.

It has been found that the two groups have quite different preferences and expectations. Compared to the marrieds, the unmarrieds have:

Associated with this difference, according to numerous studies, are the following facts. The unmarrieds:

The consequences of these circumstances for children are remarkable. The children of unmarried parents:

If the father is biologically unrelated to the child, which is much more often the case in unmarried families, the child is no better off than living with a single mother. And, compared to a child living with two natural parents, the child is much more in danger of being seriously abused both sexually and physically.

It is estimated that almost half of children growing up today will spend some time living with an unmarried, cohabiting couple. This should be considered a national tragedy. For our nation's children, one of the worst things that could befall them would be a continuation of the current shift away from marriage.

Copyright © 1998 David Popenoe.

stars icon For technical assistance:
Library Technology Group
General Library System
University of Wisconsin-Madison