Connecting Families: A Relationship Enhancement Program

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Even though cohabitation is a more tenuous relationship than marriage, lasting on
average only 1.3 years, about 53 percent of cohabiting unions “end” in marriage
(Bumpass & Lu, 2000). However, even for the total population, cohabitation is now the
modal path of entry into marriage (Brown, 2000). Today, in the United States there are
more than four million cohabitating couples, which is eight times the number in 1970
(U.S. Bureau of Census, 1999).
Changes in behaviors related to fertility have simultaneously been observed, alongside
declines in marriage rates. Larger numbers of children are being born to unmarried
women ages 15-44 (Carlson & Furstenberg, 2003). Most children born outside of
marriage will live below or just above the poverty line and many will spend time on
welfare (Carlson, Garfinkel, McLanahan, Mincy & Primus, 2003). Parents living a
lifetime in cohabiting households will rear many of these children (Osborne, McLanahan
& Brooks-Gunn, 2003). Children’s lives are less stable when their parent, most typically
their mother, moves from one relationship to another. For a substantial number of
children, the model of cohabitation leads to the development of gender attitudes and
marriage beliefs that influence behaviors and decision- making in adolescents and
adulthood (McGinnis, 2003; Manning & Lamb, 2003).
Those parents choosing cohabitation are most frequently younger, less educated and
minority women (Osborne, 2003). These factors alone often create obstacles for singleparent
families that predispose them to experience poverty (Bumpass & Lu, 2000).
Economic uncertainty and scarcity of economic resources increases the likelihood of
cohabitation (Seltzer, 2000). These patterns of family unions that occur more frequently
in low-income, high-stress households increase the likelihood that children will
experience living with a cohabiting parent at sometime in their formative years. In the
1970s, about 60% of cohabiters were married at the age of 25 or older; in the early 1990s
only 35% married (Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991), increasing the trend of fewer
cohabitations ending in marriage. As the pattern of cohabitation becomes more socially
accepted, so does the number of children born within these relationships. Recognizing
that this form of adult union is not going to disappear, but most likely will increase; it
becomes critical to develop a greater understanding of these unions.
The social and economic cost of families living in poverty is staggering. The increase of
cohabitating poor families is influenced by complex factors, which is especially true of
rural poor families. These families have fewer employment opportunities available and
Connecting Families Penn State Cooperative Extension
Changing American Family 59 2004
limited access to human service agencies (Logan, Walker, Cole, Ratliff & Leukefeld,
2003). For some the social isolation may prevent them from engaging in activities to
increase their skills that ultimately limit them to the context in which they have “grown
up.” Efforts to strengthen the skills and change the perceptions of this population will
require the development of programs and services that are tailored to the circumstances
of poor families (Ooms, 2002). The decision to marry or cohabitate is likely influenced
by many factors that interact within the life situation of low- income individuals.

Article contributed by
Advanced Member

Veronica S. Haggerty

Counselor/Therapist

"A strong, healthy relationship can be one of the best things that can happen to you. However, it can also be one of the biggest drains on you if the relationship is not working. Relationships are like bank accounts. The more you put in, the more you get back. Falling in love is the easy part, but long term relationships take work, commitment, and a willingness to adapt and change through life as a team. Learn about ways to keep a healthy relationship strong, or begin to today to work on repairing trust and renewing love for a relationship on the rocks".

Location: New Hope, PA
Credentials: MA, MFT, RN
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