Systematic Review of Impact of Marriage and Relationship Programs

Publication Date: January 15, 2005


Family structure in the United States changed rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. A wide variety of family forms increasingly replaced the two-parent family norm. In 2001, 69 percent of children lived in two-parent families, down from 77 percent in 1980 (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2002). Divorce is common. About half of all recent first marriages are expected to end in divorce (Ooms, 2002). Of children born into two-parent families, 34 percent will experience a disruption of their parents’ union by age 16. One-third of all births are out-of-wedlock. And couples opting to cohabit rather than marry is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. Forty percent of all births occur within cohabiting unions rather than marriages (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Some European countries also experienced a precipitous decline in marriage rates but have recently seen those rates level and even rise (Ford, 2002).

A vast accumulation of research suggests that children do not fare as well in these alternative family structure forms as children living with their two married biological parents. Numerous studies indicate that children growing up in single-parent families experience worse outcomes than children growing up in two-parent families (Acs & Nelson, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991; McLanahan & Sandefeur, 1994; Wu & Martinson, 1993). And many studies show that divorce, specifically, is correlated with negative effects on children’s well-being (Amato, 1993; Amato & Keith, 1991; Chase-Lansdale, Cherlin, & Kiernan, 1995; Chase-Lansdale & Hetherington, 1990). Even when parents remarry, a synthesis of the research suggests that this does not appear to improve outcomes (Amato, 1993).

Recent research also suggests a relationship between marriage and positive outcomes for adults. Married couples build more wealth on average than singles or cohabiting couples, while divorce and unmarried childbearing increase the risk of poverty for children and mothers (Lupton and Smith, 2002). Individuals who are married are found to have better health and longer life expectancies than similar singles (Lillard and Waite, 1995). Married mothers have lower rates of depression than cohabiting or single mothers (Brown, 2000). Research also shows that unhappily married adults who divorce or separate, on average, are no happier than unhappily married adults who stay together (Waite et al., 2002).

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