Cohabitation, or living together
without marriage, is a dramatic, significant change in the way many adults in
our country evolve from being single to being married.
The majority of all U.S.
today involve cohabitation before the wedding. Between 1974 and 1994, the
percentage of marriages preceded by cohabitation increased from 10 percent to 56
percent. In addition, recent surveys of single young adults in five large cities
show that the majority of both men and women in the studied groups favor
cohabitation before marriage. In one national sample, almost 60 percent of high
school seniors in the mid-1990s agreed with the statement, "It is usually a good
idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out
whether they really get along."
Despite these commonly held beliefs, the
idea that cohabitation will somehow improve the quality of a subsequent marriage
is wrong. Research over the last thirty years shows that cohabitation does not
lead to increased satisfaction or stability in marriage. Compared to marriage,
cohabitation creates disadvantages for individuals, couples, and
Before describing these disadvantages, let's first examine why
couples choose to cohabit - either as a prelude to marriage or as an expected
"permanent" lifestyle.Why Would Anyone Consider
Although some couples say they cohabit for
convenience (e.g., only one apartment to clean) or to lower their cost of living
(one apartment is cheaper than two), most adults say they cohabit for one or
more of the following reasons: (1) for emotional and sexual intimacy without the
obligations of marriage; (2) to test their compatibility; (3) to prepare for
marriage by practicing living with someone "24/7"; and (4) to better know each
other's habits, character, and fidelity. Some people perceive cohabitation as a
way to have a more intimate relationship without the risks of divorce or being
trapped in an unhappy marriage. But cohabitation does not lead to marriage in
the majority of cases; among cohabitors who do marry, their chances of divorce
are actually increased. No one has ever found that cohabitation makes a positive
contribution to later marital stability.Four Reasons
Why Cohabitation Increases the Chance of Divorce
There are several reasons why cohabiting increases a couple's chances
of divorce: First, people willing to live together are more unconventional than
others and tend to be less committed to marriage as an institution. These two
factors make it easier for them to leave a marriage later if it becomes
unsatisfying. Marriage, after all, is a unique relationship that assumes a vow
of permanence. Most cohabitors fear, or are not ready for, such a permanent
relationship. For them, according to The Case for Marriage, an important new
book by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, cohabitation's biggest attraction
is the relatively easy exit with few responsibilities. Unfortunately, for many
young adults, their parents' failed marriages may contribute to the expectation
that marriages are fragile and divorce is common.
Those who are afraid of
commitment and permanence, or who fear that these qualities can no longer be
found in marriage, may settle for cohabitation. They are likely to discover they
have settled for much less. Cohabiting relationships are relatively shortlived-
after five years, only about 10 percent of couples who cohabit and do not marry
each other are still together. Furthermore, those cohabitors who marry each
other may be as much as 46 percent more likely to divorce than people who marry
but have not cohabited first. The chances of commitment and permanence are
better with marriage. Marriage is more likely to last than cohabitation even in
the early years of the relationship. According to 1997 data, 14.5 percent of
first marriages of women who had never cohabited ended in separation, divorce,
or annulment in the first five years, compared to 22.6 percent of first
marriages of women who had cohabited (with anyone) before those marriages. 8
the breakup of a cohabiting relationship is not necessarily cleaner or easier
than divorce. A breakup involves breaking up a household and may lead to
conflicts over property, leases, pastdue bills, etc. 9
Breaking up is emotionally difficult for both cohabitors and any children of
their own or previous relationships. Women in their late twenties and thirties
experience an additional loss-their biological clocks have been ticking while
they cohabited; when they break up, they have lost valuable time in which to
find a marriageable partner and have children. 10
cohabitors value independence more than noncohabitors; marriage involves less
independence than living together. For example, cohabitors are less likely than
marrieds to support or be financially responsible for their partners. 11
They more often have separate bank accounts. Male cohabitors are more likely to
value personal leisure and individual freedom. But this individual freedom may
come with a price: they do not reap the benefits of a deeper and more intimate
Third, cohabitors are more likely than noncohabitors to
have negative attitudes about marriage and are more likely to accept divorce as
a solution to marriage problems. 12
In addition, the longer cohabiting couples live together, the more negative
their attitudes about marriage and childbearing are.13
a pattern of "serial cohabitation" actually becomes a roadblock, rather than a
prelude, to marriage. If one or both members of a couple has previously lived
with someone else and the couple marries, the relationship between previous
cohabitation(s) and later divorce is especially strong. The experience of
dissolving cohabiting relationships probably
a greater willingness to dissolve later relationships, including marriages. Such
individuals may also have a relatively low tolerance for unhappiness in a
and choose to "bail out" rather than learn to work through
differences.Eight Reasons Why Marriage Is Better than
In a comparison of relationship benefits and
costs, marriage wins over cohabitation. First, as described above, cohabitation
lowers one's chances of marital satisfaction. Cohabitors also have a different
perspective on time than
marrieds have. 15
Marriage, by definition, means, "I will always be here for you." Marrieds'
longterm contract encourages emotional investment in the relationship. In
contrast, cohabitation for most seems to mean, "I will be here only as long as
the relationship meets my needs."
Thus, cohabitors feel less secure in
their relationships. In addition, cohabitors are less likely than marrieds to
view their sexual relationships as permanently exclusive they are less faithful
to their partners than spouses are. Even when they are faithful, they are less
committed to sexual fidelity, which creates more insecurity. Second,
cohabitation also affects the cohabitors' children. In general, children's
emotional development is poorer if a parent is cohabiting than if a parent is
married. This poor development is partly due to the high risk that the couple
will break up. If the couple does separate, the children pay an economic price,
since they have no right to child support from a partner who is not their
biological parent. They also pay an emotional price when they lose a caring
adult who may have taken a parental role but will do so no longer.
living without both parents also increases the chance that a child will be
abused. Boyfriends are disproportionately likely to sexually or physically abuse
their girlfriend's children. 18
In fact, the most unsafe family environment for children is that in which the
mother is living with someone other than the child's biological father. 19
These children may also have more behavioral problems and lower academic
performance than children in married families. 20
cohabiting women are more likely than married women to suffer physical and
sexual abuse. Some estimate that aggression is at least twice as common among
cohabitors as it is among marrieds. 21
Fourth, although cohabitors try to protect their economic futures
(with separate bank accounts, for example), married couples are better off
financially. Married couples monitor each other's spendingan example of lower
independence as compared to cohabitors-but marrieds usually monitor each other
in a way that emphasizes "our spending plan" or budget. For most marrieds, "Your
money is my money." According to Waite and Gallagher, "This financial union is
one of the cornerstones (along with sexual union) of what Americans mean by
married men earn more than single men (nearly twice as much) and married women
have access to more of men's earnings than if they are single or cohabiting.
This may be explained by the increased financial responsibility men feel when
they marry many men have been heard to say, "Marriage made me get more serious
about my career and making a good living." 23
cohabitors live more like single parents than like married couples. Cohabitors
are more likely to control their own finances than to work as a close team,
helping each other meet their financial and career goals. Married women also
benefit in some aspects of their careers. Many women get a slight earnings boost
from marriage. Childless married women make 4-10 percent more than childless
single women. 24
Also, many married women report receiving considerable help from their husbands
in their careers.
Sixth, cohabitors generally do not reap the physical health
benefits enjoyed by married couples. Non-married people feel less healthy and
have higher rates of mortality than the married-about 50 percent higher among
women and 250 percent higher among men. 25
In addition, cohabiting, especially with serial partners, greatly increases the
possibility of acquiring one or more sexually transmitted
Whereas cohabitors live in noncommitted relationships that
value independence, marrieds promise to care for each other "in sickness and in
health." There are many mental and physical health benefits of knowing there is
another person who will take care of you when you cannot take care of
Compared to singles, married people as a group are also
emotionally happier. Married couples are better connected to the larger
community, including inlaws and church members who provide social and emotional
support and material benefits. 26
Although cohabitors may seem to gain some of the emotional benefits of marriage,
in general, they are no better off than singles. 27
Because cohabiting relationships are short-lived, any emotional health benefits
last for a relatively short time. Only about 60 percent of cohabiting
relationships end in marriage, 28
so if the couple breaks up rather than marries, the benefits are lost at a high
emotional cost similar to what people experience in a divorce.
some people would be surprised to learn that marrieds have better sex lives than
cohabitors. Although cohabitors have sex at least as often as marrieds, they are
less likely to say they enjoy it. 29
Marriage adds the essential ingredients of commitment and security to one's sex
life, making it more satisfying. In addition, marrieds are more likely than
cohabitors to perceive love and sex as intrinsically connected.
cohabitation may affect relationships with parents. In some families,
cohabitation is no longer associated with sin, pathology, or parental
disapproval. But in many families cohabitation is still considered morally wrong
and embarrassing to extended family members. Cohabitors from those families risk
damaging their relationships with their parents and experiencing the withdrawal
of parental and extended family support for the relationship. Moreover, the
transitory nature of cohabiting relationships may limit access to grandparents
for children of cohabiting unions.Conclusion
In the final analysis, thirty
years of research show that for the benefit of men, women, and their children,
marriage is superior to cohabitation. Cohabitation cannot provide or compete
with the rewards and benefits of a strong, committed marriage. Cohabitation is
not an effective "trial marriage," if such a thing exists. It does not provide
divorce insurance. Couples will be better off on life's measures of success and
happiness (e.g., emotional health, physical health, and personal wealth) if they
are married rather than living together. Cohabitation has more costs than
rewards but, unfortunately, continues to be popular, especially among young
adults, even though cohabitors fail to receive the benefits or avoid the risks
they think they will. People need to know that cohabitation fails to bring
couples the happiness and stability they desire in a close personal
The current generation of young adults longs for satisfying
and stable marriages, but is increasingly anxious about their ability to achieve
them. Their fears will be calmed through better premarriage education and
counseling. They will not be helped by alternatives to marriage that, although
they appear reasonable and attractive, will not fulfill their promise and fail
when compared to marriage. Marriage educators, university professors, public
school teachers, premarriage counselors, the clergy, the media, and parents can
provide this important information to our youth and begin to reinstate the
institution of marriage as fundamental to personal and family success.
these recommendations come at a time when increasing numbers of people are
working to support a marriage culture in our country. The marriage movement can
be a helpful support and benefit to those who are married and those who are not.
"Support for marriage . . . does not require turning back the clock on desirable
social change, promoting male tyranny, or tolerating domestic violence. . . .
Whether an individual ever personally marries or not, a healthy marriage culture
benefits every [person] . . . ." 31
institution of marriage, which has been universally accepted as the way to
provide for children and realize adult dreams, has also been affirmed by
scholarly research as the way to increased health, happiness, and financial
security. Although the increase in cohabitation and its implications for
marriage are still being studied, the statistics do not tell the entire story. A
movement among young people, usually in religious settings, has led thousands of
youth to promise to wait for sex until after they are married, thus foregoing
cohabitation as well. These young adults have rejected the cultural changes that
some of their peers accept as the norm.
Given the benefits of marriage to
adults and children and the discouraging data about cohabitation, young people
warned that the relationships they wish for and
think they can achieve through cohabitation are more likely to be found in
marriage. According to the best research available, cohabitation, like a mirage,
holds out empty promises that disappear and even lead away from fulfillment of
the hopes most people have for their lives. Even though people who marry do not
always live "happily ever after," people who choose marriage instead of
cohabitation choose the best beginning for their children and the best
opportunity for lasting happiness.Jeffry H. Larson, Ph.D., LMFT,
CFLE, is a professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Brigham Young University
and author of Should We Stay Together? A Scientifically Proven Method for
Evaluating Your Relationship and Improving its Chances for LongTerm Success (San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000)
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(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).
5. Linda J. Waite & Maggie
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12. Waite & Gallagher (2000), note 6.
13. Larson (2000), note 5.
14. Waite & Gallagher (2000), note 6.
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31. Waite & Gallagher (2000), note