Implementing Healthy Marriage Programs for Unmarried Couples with Children: Early Lessons from the Building Strong Families Project

Publication Date: July 17, 2006


As nonmarital childbearing has increased, so has concern for the attendant consequences. One-third of all children in the United States are now born to unwed parents, a rate that is even higher among some population groups. Although many children of unwed couples flourish, research shows that, on average, compared with children growing up with their married biological parents, they are at greater risk of living in poverty and developing social, behavioral, and academic problems (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Amato 2001).

Research suggests that there may be opportunities to address this concern. The 20-city Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study showed that most unwed parents are romantically involved during the time that their children are born, and many anticipate marrying each other. Most agree that it is better for children if their parents are married. Nevertheless, the Fragile Families study showed that only a small fraction of such couples are married a year after their children are born (Carlson, McLanahan, and England 2004).

“Fragile families” often face circumstances that can function as barriers to healthy marriage and sustained relationships, such as unemployment, low educational attainment, children from previous partners, substance use, and domestic violence. In addition, many such couples have not experienced healthy intimate relationships, in either their families of origin or adult lives. Without this experience as a guide, an intimate relationship can be a struggle, and can be compounded by the additional stresses and responsibilities created by a new child. Although research has found that instruction in relationship skills can improve couples’ relationships and marriages, including those of couples expecting children, these programs typically are not available to low-income, unwed parents.

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