Sydney Morning Herald
Thursday, December 2, 1999

Double or Nothing

Lots of couples find de facto marriage suits them just fine. But, asks Bettina Arndt, does it work for their children?

By Bettina Arndt
Sydney Morning Herald

There's a new breed of family in Australia. Open any newspaper and you'll see them. The football hero proudly nursing his newborn baby. Beside him is his partner, the child's mother. At the opening of a new kindergarten, there's a young de facto couple playing with their cute toddler. Cohabiting parents are so commonplace that their unmarried status no longer attracts comment.

Twenty years ago it was different. Then, many were shocked at the trend for couples to live together, even though the de facto relationship was often seen as a youthful experiment in trial marriage - mere practice for the real thing. Today almost 60 per cent of couples live together before marriage, even more do so post-divorce, and for some, cohabitation has become a long-term lifestyle choice.

Many take this one step further, seeing the de facto relationship as a suitable setting for raising children. But the instability of many de facto relationships must raise concerns that this trend is adding to the number of children having to cope with family break-ups.

Many such children end up living, often in poverty, with their single mothers or find themselves with new de facto fathers. Every fourth baby born in Australia has unmarried parents. In 1997, there were 168,600 children whose biological parents were living in a de facto relationship.

The stigma on the children has virtually disappeared. De facto couples are surprised to be asked whether they have been criticised for bearing ex-nuptial children. ''Of course not. I'm not around people who'd criticise me for my lifestyle choice. There are no repressed Catholics in my life.'' This is John Nielsen, 38, de facto partner to Monica Schmidt, 29, mother of his two youngest children, Karla, 19 months, and Freyja, three months. Nielsen has a 15-year-old-son from an earlier marriage and an 11-year-old boy from another de facto relationship.

When Karla was born, Schmidt's mother suggested the couple should marry to avoid the child being embarrassed at school. Monica was scathing: ''Mum, These are the '90s!'' she told her, explaining that since the child would most likely be surrounded by children born to single mothers, having unmarried parents was no big deal.

The couple see no reason to marry. ''It's just a piece of paper to me. I consider myself married without that,'' says Schmidt. Well, almost married. She sees the de facto state as preferable. ''There's more freedom, I'm allowed to do whatever I like,'' she says, reacting against the compulsory togetherness she associates with matrimony.

''It's outmoded. I'm just as committed to the relationship as I would be if I was married,'' adds Nielsen. But this commitment has its limits. Nielsen has a troubled background, claiming to have been emotionally abused after his parents' divorce. He is heavily involved in therapy, and says that if the relationship with Schmidt interfered with his therapeutic progress, he'd leave.

And what about the children? ''Anything that comes before my recovery has to go,'' Nielsen says. ''If I'm not putting myself first, the children are not going to see someone who's looking after themselves. It's better to remove them from that situation.''

Schmidt is equally ready to split if the relationship goes downhill. ''I know if the relationship gets too bad, it would hurt the kids more to stay.''

In recent years there has been a flurry of research into cohabiting couples, following the discovery that, contrary to all assumptions, trial marriages actually decrease rather than increase marital stability. Not only do de facto unions break up at roughly twice the rate of married couples, but de facto couples are more divorce-prone when they do marry.

Helen Glezer's 1991 research at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) showed that 25 per cent of de facto relationships lasted 12 months, about half ended after two years and three-quarters ended by four years. And then there's the AIFS Family Formation Project, which found that after five years of marriage, 13 per cent of those who had previously cohabited were divorced, compared with six per cent of non-cohabiters. After 20 years, the equivalent figures were 56 per cent and 27 per cent.

And there is little evidence of greater stability when there are children involved. Negotiating the Life Course, a study by Australian National University demography professor Peter McDonald, found many de facto couples have complex relationship histories, involving very unstable relationships. Recent research from Britain's Economic and Social Research Council shows families with cohabiting parents break up at four times the rate of married parents.

Couples who choose to cohabit are also likely to hold attitudes that make them more prone to divorce. Glezer found that the couples most likely to live together usually have fewer traditional values and place more emphasis on personal autonomy.

''I've got a life too. If I thought, 'Oh, this isn't doing anything for me', I'd move on,'' says Robyn Hill, 41, who lives with Tony Lawes, 47, and their two children in Yallourn North, Victoria. She was married for five years in her 20s - ''We worked out it just wasn't happening'' - and fell pregnant just after she and Lawes began living together. ''About 10 minutes after,'' chuckles Hill.

She decided that if Lawes wasn't interested in the child she'd go ahead on her own, but he was thrilled to become a father. ''The child just sort of happened. It brought the issue to a head and we said, 'Oh well, all right.''' Their second child followed 15 months later. Hill jokes that she has considered the advantages of a wedding: ''I thought, 'Well, we do need a new toaster!' But I can't see the need to be married.''

Sotirios Sarantakos, a professor of sociology at Charles Sturt University, believes the unstable relationship history of cohabiting couples is partly because of the particular group attracted to the lifestyle - people who are less likely to value commitment to a permanent relationship. His research shows many de facto couples choose cohabitation because they see the relationship as different to marriage.

''They see cohabitation as involving less commitment, less responsibility, more freedom, an easy exit, a more liberal, independent type of relationship.'' He has also found many cohabiting couples choose to live with people they would reject as marriage partners. ''They accept different qualities in a de facto partner than they would choose in a spouse.''

It's hardly surprising then that when these relationships drift into marriage, many come unstuck. And equally, when an unplanned pregnancy occurs in a de facto relationship, a woman may end up with a very different father for her children than the man she might have chosen for the job. Talking to women who have children in de facto relationships, it's striking how many decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, despite being in an unsatisfactory relationship. ''Our relationship was quite rocky ... but I was under the delusion that I'd have the child and everything would be fine and dandy. But things went from bad to worse,'' says Suzi Malivanek, who works as a waitress in Mullumbimby to support her 14-year-old daughter.

Her de facto relationship broke up more than 11 years ago. At that time she did not consider marriage an option, but says: ''I would love to be married and have a committed relationship.''

She has decided to move away from the North Coast culture, believing it contributes to relationship instability. ''Up here there are a lot of women who have so many children to different fathers, people going from partner to partner, and I see a lot of devastating effects on their kids. The things we do to our kids, I just can't believe it.''

The high concentration of de facto couples in such communities contributes to relationship instability for de factos, says Sarantakos. But he points out the other main group bearing children in de facto relationships are hard-up young people. ''Many poor, unemployed kids don't feel they are in a position to get married. They drift into relationships, often end up having a child, and then move on,'' he comments.

AIFS research has found couples bearing children in de facto relationships are usually from low socioeconomic backgrounds. In 40 per cent of de facto couples with children, both partners had fewer than 10 years of school, compared with nine per cent of married couples with children, says research by McDonald and Siew-Ean Khoo. McDonald's recent study found more than half the women having ex-nuptial births were under 25.

Being born into often unstable de facto relationships means most of these children will end up being raised in poverty by poor, young single mothers or will become involved in step-families, which often increase the risks for the children.

But there are the exceptions. There are many middle-class educated parents who chose not to marry but maintain long-term stable families. Like Peter Howard, 45, a Sydney retail manager who has been with his partner Lyn Harrison, 42, for 15 years. They have an eight-year-old daughter. ''We've thought about getting married, but just never got around to it,'' he says, explaining that he sees their daughter as proof of their commitment. ''''The decision to have a child [is] definitely a tie. I wouldn't think of walking away from it now, anymore than if we were married.''

Among the aging baby boomers are many who saw marriage as an antiquated, bourgeois institution - yet they may also speak very eloquently about commitment. Like a Sydney doctor I spoke to who's lived with his partner for 20 years. Few married couples could match their devotion to each other and their two children. ''I don't see any difference between marriage and non-marriage in terms of the casualisation of relationships. I think people breaking up relationships involving young children is a very serious issue and I'd like to see a lot more responsibility from parents - but marriage has nothing to do with it,'' he says.

That is certainly true - for some. But the evidence does suggest attitudes associated with cohabitation may be contributing to the casualisation of relationships, particularly in certain sectors of our society.

Among the growing group of de facto parents are many who acknowledge they are resisting the further ties they associate with marriage, and who baulk at loss of freedom, the absence of an escape hatch. To have children in these circumstances is surely cause for concern.

Today children are most likely to be living with a parent who is in a de facto relationship after divorce rather than before. De facto couples tend to be divorcees, rather than young never-marrieds. There is a strong trend for divorced parents, at least initially, to live with their new partners rather than marry them. McDonald's research shows more than 80 per cent of remarried couples have lived with each other.

This means many Australian children spend time living with a divorced parent and a de facto partner. Glezer's Family Life Course study found that of cohabiting couples with children, about six out of 10 were living in a stepfamily.

So, almost two thirds of the children living with de facto parents have experienced parental divorce and live with a de facto step-parent.

In 1996, 279,000 children lived with parents in a de facto relationship, twice as many as a decade earlier.

Sadly this increases the chance of damage to these children. There is growing evidence that children living with de facto parents face a dramatically increased risk of physical and sexual abuse.

The NSW Child Protection Council has warned that de facto partners pose a disproportionate risk to children - 1994 child homicide figures show the proportion of suspected killers in de facto relationships was 6 times higher than in the general population.

A study by Robert Whelan of Britain's Family Education Trust found that compared to children living with married biological parents, children living with unmarried biological parents are 20 times more likely to be subject to child abuse; those living with a mother and a de facto boyfriend are 33 times more at risk.

Many of these de facto relationships don't last, and the children find themselves caught up in not just one family break-up but a number of such disruptions. Yet there is strong evidence that change - swapping schools, moving house, new neighbourhoods, new family members - most affects children's post-divorce well-being.

The large numbers of children of divorce caught up in these often temporary, de facto relationships find their school progress is hampered, says Sarantakos. Even after allowing for socioeconomic circumstances, he finds children of cohabiting couples perform significantly worse than children of married couples in measures of aptitude like language and mathematics, and are more likely to fall below their expected level of educational achievement.

Obviously there are exceptions. There are many divorced parents who are extremely cautious about involving their children in their love lives, and many who achieve very stable relationships, with or without a remarriage. But there are also far too many falling into trial relationships and taking children along for the ride.

Copyright © 1999. The Sydney Morning Herald