A satisfying and high-quality marriage is associated with greater well-being on a host of social, economic, and health indicators for adults and any children they may have. But marital quality changes over time, especially during the transition to parenthood. Having a child is a life-changing event that produces a lot of stress for new parents. Indeed, as families adjust to the new roles, routines, expectations, and demands on individuals’ and couples’ time and energy, marital quality tends to suffer—parents report fewer positive exchanges, more conflict, and declines in satisfaction.
The share of children born to unmarried parents has been increasing since the 1960s, and today, roughly 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers. Most of these women are cohabiting or romantically involved at the time of the birth, yet little is known about how relationship quality changes over time for unmarried couples with children and how it may differ from married couples.
We might expect relationship quality to decline more after childbirth among unmarried couples as compared to married couples. Marriage has historically been the primary context for childbearing, and the institutionalized nature of the legal and personal commitments of marriage may enable spouses to more effectively negotiate their new roles and responsibilities during the transition to parenthood; this, in turn, may help preserve higher relationship quality.
In new research published in the journal, Social Science Research, we draw on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study—a study of nearly 5,000 urban births in the United States between 1998-2000—to evaluate how marriage shapes the relationship quality trajectory following the birth of a child. We use mothers’ reports of the level of supportiveness in the couple relationship after the child’s birth (at 1, 3, 5, and 9 years after the birth), and we adjust for a host of social, economic, and health-related differences between unmarried and married couples.
Among all couples, we find that being married at the time of a child’s birth is indeed associated with smaller declines in relationship quality during the first nine years of parenthood as compared to cohabiting or dating couples at the time of the birth. This suggests that marriage may have an important role in enabling couples to better weather the challenges of new parenthood.
Because many couples break-up—and those who break up likely differ in various ways from those who stay together—we also compared the subset of couples who remained married following a birth to the subset of unmarried couples who remained stably partnered over the 9 years after the child’s birth. Among this more select group of stable couples, we found that being married at birth does not differentiate relationship quality trajectories over time. This suggests that marriage by itself may not protect against relationship quality decline. Rather, marriage, relationship quality, and relationship stability seem to go hand-in-hand.
Beyond the differences in how marital status at birth differentiates relationship quality trajectories, there is reason to believe that for unmarried couples, getting married after having a child may be linked with improved couple relationship quality. Certainly, those couples with the most positive relationships may be more likely to marry, but marriage may also boost relationship quality because it provides clearer norms and expectations about family roles and responsibilities, i.e., it is more ‘institutionalized’ than cohabitation. Thus, marrying may clarify family roles and may lessen the uncertainty about the future that cohabiting couples may feel, leading to improved relationship quality post-marriage.
In our research, we find that among all couples cohabiting at the birth of their child, those who got married reported more supportive relationships at all subsequent time points. Also, although relationship quality declined over time for couples overall, those who married did experience a post-marriage supportiveness “boost” that is larger than the average decline. This leads to an increasing gap in relationship quality between those who married and those who did not over time.
Marriage at the time of birth seems to be (modestly) protective against declines in relationship quality, and getting married after the birth is associated with higher quality relationships.
As with our first set of analyses comparing married couples to unmarried couples, it is important to look again at stable couples. And here, we find that among the subset of cohabiting couples who remained stably partnered, getting married had little impact on their subsequent relationship quality. Again, this suggests that marriage alone may not lessen the decline in relationship quality following the birth of a child. However, the differences in the results across these two samples suggest that one reason marriage may be protective for relationship quality is because it reduces the likelihood of breaking up.
It is important to note that unmarried couples who stay together over nine years following the birth of a child represent a very select group. Overall, about half of the couples that started out cohabiting at birth were co-residing at 9 years (and of these, about two-thirds were married, while one-third were still cohabiting). Therefore, the couples analyzed in this research clearly represent the ‘best’ relationships among all cohabiting couples. If getting married does not improve their relationships, there could be little promise of marriage for the other unwed couples.
Taken together, our findings about being married at birth and getting married after birth suggest that compared to cohabitation, marriage is positively related to couple relationship quality: Marriage at the time of birth seems to be (modestly) protective against declines in relationship quality, and getting married after the birth is associated with higher quality relationships as measured here by supportiveness.
At the same time, we also found that marriage does not differentiate relationship quality when focusing only on those couples who remain stably partnered. One way to interpret the gap between the two sets of analyses, is that there may be a package of unmeasured characteristics—personal disposition, conflict resolution skills, relationship expectations, financial resources, etc.—that facilitate both high-quality relationships and relationship stability, and that this package of characteristics is more likely to occur among married couples. Because family stability is key to children’s well-being, and couples who are able to maintain supportive relationships stay together, it is important to better understand how these types of unmeasured characteristics shape marital and cohabiting relationship trajectories and how they could be developed to promote more satisfying, higher-quality, and stable relationships.
Alicia G. VanOrman, Ph.D., is Senior Research Associate for U.S. Programs for the Population Reference Bureau. Marcia J. Carlson, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and Director of the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.