Premarital births no longer predict breakups

ITHACA, NY – Premarital births no longer predict breakups so long as couples marry after a child is born, according to a study by Cornell University professor Kelly Musick.

The research, published this month in the journal Demography, marks a significant change in behavior from only two decades ago. In the early 1990s couples who cohabited, had a premarital birth and later married were 60 percent more likely to divorce than couples that married before having a child. A decade later, this study found, those same kinds of couples had no higher chance of breaking up than couples who had children after marriage.

“Results support the notion that cohabitation has become a more normative part of the family formation process,” said Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology.

Musick found that couples are thinking differently about when to become parents or marrying.

“The increasing stability of cohabiting couples and the declining importance of marriage timing – relative to parenthood – suggests that many parents may be jointly planning marriage and childbirth as the quality and commitment of their relationships grow. And that is with little regard to which comes first,” she said.

The study used data from the National Survey of Family Growth to examine the stability of couples – married and unmarried – who have had a child together had a child together between 1985-1995, and between 1997-2010.

According to the research findings, there was no change in the stability of unions with children between those periods, with an estimated 17 percent of all couples with children separating within five years.

While marriage timing did not matter for couples’ stability, getting married did. Cohabiting parents who did not marry had a breakup rate within five years twice as high (30 percent) as married couples.

“Cohabiting couples tend to have less education and income than married couples, and it may be that those who do not marry are a particularly disadvantaged group,” said Musick.

“Marriage is less a silver bullet than it is an outcome of a whole set of factors linked to stability and security that help parents stay together.”

Kelly Musick’s paper is titled “Change in the Stability of Marital and Cohabiting Unions Following the Birth of a Child.” The paper was co-authored by Katherine Michelmore, postdoctoral fellow with the Ford School’s Education Policy Initiative at the University of Michigan.


Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.