For Black Parents, Maybe Co-Habitation Deserves a Second Look


For most of us, we don’t have to look far to find evidence of the growing attraction of co-habitation over marriage for more and more couples, even those who have children together. From the celebrity culture with which this nation seems obsessed to our friends and family, we see more people choosing to forgo the ring and the marriage certificate. This is especially evident in the black community, where plenty of black folk (and black celebs) are choosing the roommate option over the ring. Nia Long was just on the cover of Essence magazine, talking about the strength of her relationship and not feeling like she needed a ring.

An article on chronicles the growing trend of cohabitation and asks whether this is good for the children. The article seems to come down on the side of….uh, maybe, maybe not. Stats reveal how much more common it is: The percentage of first births to women living with a male partner jumped from 12 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2010, according to the CDC. And the National Marriage Project, based at the University of Virginia, found that kids today are twice as likely to have unmarried parents living together than divorced ones.

The writer, Margaret Hargrove, quotes statistics that we’ve all heard before, showing that co-habitating couples are more likely to get divorced: The National Marriage Project report found two-thirds of kids will see their co-habitating parents break up by age 12, while only one-quarter of married-before-children parents will divorce.

“Cohabiting parents tend to be more ambivalent, which can lead to instability in the relationship,” says Margaret Owen, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Texas, Dallas. “Perhaps this ambivalence is a factor in their decision to live together rather than get married in the first place.”

But when it comes to the kids, perhaps the focus needs to be less on whether the parents have a marriage certificate and more on whether both parents are stable, loving, supportive presences in their children’s lives. I just wrote a book called Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge with NBA vet Etan Thomasin in which we go on for pages urging fathers to remain a daily, constant presence in their children’s lives. While conventional wisdom tells us this is more likely to occur in a relationship where the two parties are married, it’s NOT a necessity. If a man and a woman (or some other configuration of parentage) can commit to each other and also to the raising of strong, healthy, confident, loved children, then perhaps we as a society and a community should back off from the marriage insistence and focus more on the state of our children.

After all, in a community where more than two-thirds of our children are being raised by single parents ANYWAY, clearly the marriage focus isn’t working for black people. So if we confront the reality of our situation, we can start talking about other ways to insure that our children get what they need, about new parenting arrangements, a renewed focus on the mental health of black children. As part of such a discussion, maybe co-habitation becomes more acceptable and acknowledged as a viable means of co-parenting strong black kids.

Just sayin’.


1. Wisconsin Senator Thinks Single Parenthood Is Child Abuse—And Proposes Bill To Make It So
2. {Let’s Talk About Sex} How A Single Mom Talks To Her Son About Sex
3. If These Marriage Trends Continue, the Word “Father” Will Soon Be Obsolete

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I’m just not sure that we should take the focus off of the importance of marriage and how much I mean two-thirds versus one quarter is a huge difference. We have to teach our daughters that being a single Mom isn’t “where its at”. Because if this becomes the “norm” in our home this is what they will consider the norm as adults…just my 2 cents!

  2. I agree that “the focus needs to be less on whether the parents have a marriage certificate and more on whether both parents are stable, loving, supportive presences in their children’s lives.” I know plenty of married couples who are unhappy but stay in it for the kids, but their misery affects their parenting.

  3. This is a hard subject for me, raising 3 daughters…alone no doubt, after a failed 12 year marriage. With that being said, politically correct or not, I believe we should raise our children as the Bible says. I believe women should demand that men who are so free to involve themselves with women oh so casually should put a stop to it. If you love your family you should commit to taking care of your wife or husband and the children you created. Commit to your life and the success of your MARRIAGE and your FAMILY. What is so wrong and hard about that. The “adults” of today need to grow up and take control of their minds and bodies and stop giving in to uncommitted meaningless relations and oops a baby comes into play and on a daily basis, what does that mean, another hundreds of thousands of babies are born into an unstable, uncommitted non-relationship. At least try and give your family and creations a chance.

    And as I sidenote, I am not one to harshly judge us glamorizing single mothers, because if that’s the situation you’re in you should make the best of it, but simply said, right is right.

    • I fully agree…people are so stuck on doing what feels good. We fail to be the example for our children. I am not waving a finger at a single mom because things happen, however we do want to make sure that these men are aware that laying down with me isn’t just for tonight. I don’t want to create a generation of children who will continue to “fly by the seat of their pants” and lose what God tells us about the importance of marriage and the blessings that come from it…perhaps part of the reason we see soo much struggle in single parent homes? the way we present it to the children now can last a lifetime…why not present the beauty of marriage, one partner, the idea that adults argue but love can over rule, or even that choosing wisely whether or not laying down with/without a serious commitment can change and alter our lives drastically…..married doesn’t always mean that its more stable…but its definitely worth teaching our kids right so that they know whats expected of them.

      • Jacqueline Lewis

        I agree Francella, we’ve got to want God’s best. I do not care what celebrities are doing. They aren’t who we should be looking for, for a standard. I want my children to aim high, and for the best. Not least than, and for them and there children marriage is the best. There are studies that say married men are healthier, married women live longer. Our children do better with mom and dad married, why because you may not be able to committ to raising this child together in a house, if you can’t committ to this first relationship. Yes, there are single mother households where the father is fathering amazing kids outside of there household, but is it the best, or is it second best.

  4. Although, marriage is the ideal set up that has been working to raise productive children for centuries and generations in our community and others. Being married is not the end all and the be all. However, providing a two-parent committed partnership is. It doesn’t even have to be with two parents living in the same house. It needs to be two people on the same side to raise the child. The child needs to know it, and experience it. They will be successful from there. The thing is…many parents aren’t willing to provide that kind of stability. Too many parents are hung up on their own issues, problems, and selfishness, and can’t commit to a relationship let alone working as a co-parent. So having said all of that, I wonder why we think we have to settle for some half-assed set up for a family, and allow others to have the institution that has been working effectively for a very long time.


      “I wonder why we think we have to settle for some half-assed set up for a family, and allow others to have the institution that has been working effectively for a very long time.”

      • Exactly..

      • I’m sorry, but so much in this piece bothers me. Why are we even hinting that the best black people can do is achieve a lesser standard that has been proven in the majority cases to be a pale imitation of marriage, and a union more prone to breakups?

        I wish we’d push black people to aim for the gold standard instead of settling for less. Being a WIFE was the only option I was going to consider, and that’s what I became. Black women are being sold a bill of goods here.

  5. I think that if possible, yes having two involved parents in the home even if they aren’t married is an advantage. But the instability (compared to marrieds) is higher. The “price’ to leave a marriage is higher than it is to leave someone you’re living with, even if you have a child together. It boggles my mind how someone can commit to having a child with someone, but not to marrying them. That would make me question the person’s commitment to me and our child. I’d like to see the stats on co-habitating couples with children vs single parent households; the article stated that 12% of 1st borns are living w/ co-habitating parents, but I’m sure the % of single mothers not co-habitating is higher.

    And if you’re talking about the future for black parents being co-habitating w/o even a commitment to one another, which seems like the end of this article is leading to; I see that causing more problems to children in the long run. I don’t think most single parents could happily live with one another while they’re seeing different people and living their own respective lives except for sharing a roof, a child, and occasional family outings.

  6. Parenting takes two people to make it work well. I don’t care if those two bodies are male and female, male and male, or female and female. However, instead of trying to make relationships that have consistently been shown to be unstable work (co-habitation), why don’t we try paring single parents up with other single parents as roommates/housemates so they could try to raise their children together. This may have never been tried before, but couldn’t there be like a matchmaking website for single parents that share similar parenting philosophies. They help parent each others children and both contribute financially to the household which pretty much creates a dual income household? I know there could be issues here and there but wouldn’t that be a better option than trying to hold on to a co-habitation relationship that seems statistically destined to fail?

    • This right here is a great idea. I think the only issue might be when one of the single parents ends up marrying, this would be breaking up a familial unit that the children are accustomed to.

  7. So in a nutshell, black parents should settle for “pretend” marriages because the idea of actually marrying someone before having a child is too difficult for them to grasp?? Isn’t that like saying we should have young girls focus on english and art in school because they can’t handle math and science??

  8. Jacqueline Lewis

    Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, how about as black families we try to think about why our marriages aren’t working. Do we go and get help, do we have someone to talk to about our marriage failing. I definitely don’t think co-habitation works, I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. Oh yeah, what does a paper have to do with anything, well why don’t they want the paper, let’s ask that question. My husband and I have been married to close to 21 years, and so many ups and downs. Mainly because of each one of our selfishness definitely doesn’t have anything to do with me having a marriage certificate. (I’m know that isn’t what your saying) Maybe men who don’t marry the mother feel that they need to work harder on parenting (just a thought) than fathers that are married. Or maybe as men and women we need to learn how to love ourselves first before we get the right to love our children. While growing up I thought co-habitation was fine, until I began to see God’s plan. Yes driving license, marriage license, and other license definitely change how we think. Maybe we should be wondering why?

  9. I agree 100 percent that our focus should be on your children at all times regardless of the situation. I also think that we as women settle for men with the wrong principle in mind. We tend to give our attention to the $ (dollar sign)/or guyfriend with benefits and forget about the principles that we were birth into. We have a covenat to GOD, his is will and his way. Therefore marriage should be a goal in a relationship or my thought would be what’s the point to wasteing my time with one. My experience would be to not live with a men unless we are ready for a marriage.

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