Custody, Access and Child Support: Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth

II - THE COMPLEX FAMILY LIVES OF CANADIAN CHILDREN (continued)

Children Born to Common-Law Couples Face a Greater Risk of Experiencing Their Parents' Separation

The choice of parents to live together rather than marry has far-reaching consequences for the survival of the family unit. Figure 4 presents the cumulative percentage of Canadian children, born in two-parent families, who experienced parental separation according to the type of parental union. The analysis is based on the 1983-1984 cohorts which are made up of children who had reached the age of 10 by the time the NLSCY was conducted.

Four types of parental unions are distinguished:

  1. parents who married directly without living together beforehand;
  2. parents who lived together beforehand, but married before the children were born;
  3. parents who were living together at the birth of the children, but married afterwards; and
  4. parents who remained in a common-law union.

In the 1983-1984 cohorts, 60 percent of the children were born to parents who married without first cohabiting, and 24 percent to parents who married after cohabiting. Another 10 percent of children were born to cohabiting parents and for 3 percent of this group the parents married before the child's tenth birthday. Children born to a single parent (6 percent) are excluded from the analysis.

Figure 4: Cumulative Percentage of Canadian Children Born in a Two-Parent Family, Who Have Experienced Their Parents' Separation, According to Type of Parents' Union--1983-1984 Cohorts--NLSCY 1994-1995

Figure 4: Cumulative Percentage of Canadian Children Born in a Two-Parent Family, Who Have Experienced Their Parents' Separation, According to Type of Parents' Union--1983-1984 Cohorts--NLSCY 1994-1995

[ Description of Figure 4 ]

As can be seen in Figure 4, parents who lived together before marrying were more likely to separate than parents who married without first living together, but less likely to separate than couples who remained in a common-law union. Indeed, as common-law unions have almost become the norm as a way of entering into conjugal life, studies have shown that couples who married after first cohabiting increasingly resemble couples who married directly.

The highest risk of separation is in families involving common-law couples: by the time children born in 1983-1984 reached the age of ten, 63 percent of them had experienced the separation of their parents, compared to only 14 percent of children born to parents who married without first living together.

Does this pattern hold all across the country, or is it different in Quebec where common-law unions are sometimes viewed as a retreat from the formality of marriage, though the couples are as committed as couples who marry?

Figure 5 illustrates the cumulative percentage of children who experienced the separation of their parents before the age of six, according to the type of parental union, in Quebec and Ontario. This figure confirms that common-law unions are indeed more stable, or perhaps we should say less unstable, in Quebec than in Ontario; only 37 percent of children born to cohabiting parents between 1983 and 1988 in Quebec experienced parental separation before the age of six, as compared to 61 percent in Ontario. Nonetheless, common-law unions are less stable than marriages. Moreover, although common-law unions are less unstable in Quebec than in the rest of Canada, the fact that more children are born and raised into these unions in Quebec (20 percent in Quebec versus 5 percent in Ontario for the 1983-1988 cohorts) clearly outweighs the benefits of their greater relative stability in Quebec.

Figure 5: Cumulative Percentage of Children Born in a Two-Parent Family, Who Have Experienced Their Parents' Separation Before Age 6, According to Type of Parents' Union--1983-1988 Cohorts--NLSCY 1994-1995

Figure 5: Cumulative Percentage of Children Born in a Two-Parent Family, Who Have Experienced Their Parents' Separation Before Age 6, According to Type of Parents' Union--1983-1988 Cohorts--NLSCY 1994-1995

[ Description of Figure 5 ]

Figure 5 presents the experience of children born during the 1980s. What will happen to children born to common-law couples in the 1990s, when cohabitation is more widespread as a way of entering family life? Will these unions remain as unstable as they were in the 1980s? This remains to be seen, but the answer is significant given that over 40 percent of all children born in Quebec in 1993-1994 were born into common-law unions.

Having set the stage with a brief description of the changing family situations of children in Canada, let us now turn to the questions of custody, access to the non-custodial parent and child support payments for the growing number of children whose parents have separated.

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