Here’s another view on the cohabitation-parenting discussion.
His view is that some couples end up living together because the barriers to entry are low, and then stay together out of inertia even though their commitment is low, and then have children in a less-committed relationship, with a higher-than-average risk of negative consequences. In a longer post, he writes:
There is a lot of selection involved in who cohabits prior to having clear, mutual plans for marriage. However, on top of those selection characteristics, cohabitation adds to the picture by making some of these already riskier relationships harder to leave. This does not prevent a child from being born to two cohabiting parents. … This model of cohabitation risk based on inertia fully embraces selection. In this way of thinking, cohabitation may not causes poorer parenting but it may well increase the number of couples who have or bear children who are not well matched and who will have difficulty parenting together. Hence, one can predict that a net societal increase in cohabitation that begins before partners have a clear and mutual commitment will lead to a greater number of children living in difficult contexts.
This seems like a reasonable hypothesis of what happens in some cohabiting relationships. This perspective is more fully developed in an article Stanley wrote with Galena Rhoades and Howard Markman called, “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect.” Empirically, there is lots of evidence that many couples “slide” into cohabitation rather than making a deliberate decision to do so, going back to the qualitative research by Wendy Manning and Pam Smock.
Policy-wise, I’m still inclined to look for ways to reduce the negative consequences that might follow from these arrangements, rather than try to redirect trends in family formation patterns, which undermines potentially positive innovations, and hasn’t proven successful anyway.
As I wrote a couple weeks ago:
Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? … In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.