CohabitationCohabitation – the politically correct term for what used to be called “shacking up” – has become very common in our day.  Nearly 8 million opposite-sex couples live together today, compared to less than 1 million 30 years ago.  Nearly 10% of all opposite-sex couples are cohabiting, and over half of all first marriages are preceded by a period of cohabitation.

How did we get here?

How did cohabitation go from being illegal in all states prior to 1970 and held in moral contempt by society at large to being so ubiquitous and accepted today?  There are several reasons:

  • The sexual revolution removed the moral stigma of premarital sex.
  • Our culture has moved from a culture of traditions and social conformity to a culture of individualism and personal gratification.
  • We shifted from a deontological view of morality to a pragmatic and relativistic view of morality in which any activity that does not cause harm to others is morally permissible.
  • The recognition of the fragility of marriage, and a corresponding fear of divorce.
  • The rise of feminism which rejected the traditional roles played by married women. Cohabitation promised personal autonomy and more relationship equity.
  • The increasing economic independence of women made marriage less necessary for them. And men, who are generally more fearful of commitment, supported the arrangement since it still provided for their needs of sexual gratification and domestic support.[1]

Cohabitation is not what it seems

Many people think cohabitation is a good idea.[2]  It serves as a trial marriage of sorts, allowing them to test their compatibility before making a life-long commitment to each other.[3]  They think cohabiting before marriage will reduce their risk of divorce – an experience many of them have endured with their parents, and do not want to replicate in their own lives.[4]  If, after playing house for a while, they think they are capable of forming a life-long bond, then they get married.  If it doesn’t work out, then they just go your separate ways – no harm done.

This seems to make a lot of sense, and yet our intuitions on this matter couldn’t be more mistaken.  Cohabitation is harmful to the formation of lasting, fruitful relationships.  Sociologists are now sounding the alarm against cohabitation.  For example, the August 2005 edition of Psychology Today featured an article titled “The Cohabitation Trap: When ‘Just Living Together’ Sabotages Love.”  The accompanying blurb says it well: “Living together before marriage seems like a smart way to road test the relationship. But cohabitation may lead you to wed for all the wrong reasons–or turn into a one-way trip to splitsville.”

Other articles warning against the dangers of cohabitation include “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage,” appearing in the New York Times.  Glenn Stanton recently authored a book titled The Ring Makes All erence, detailing the sociological data.  Sociologists have even given a name to the phenomenon: The Cohabitation Effect.  Here is the diagnosis:

  • Higher rates of dissolution. Yale University sociologist Neil Bennett found that women who cohabited with their partner before marriage were 80% more likely to separate or divorce than those who did not.[5]  The National Survey of Families and Households found that couples who cohabited prior to marriage were nearly twice as likely to experience divorce within 10 years (57% vs. 30%.).[6]  Many other studies have also noted the connection.[7]
  • Less sexual satisfaction. Married couples who did not cohabit report greater sexual satisfaction than those who did.
  • Increased infidelity. Those who cohabit are twice as likely to be unfaithful to their partners as those who choose marriage.
  • Less egalitarian. While one would think that cohabiting couples would share more of the household chores, men in cohabiting relationships contribute less than do married men.
  • Higher rates of depression (300% more than married couples)[8]
  • Higher rates of physical violence

Why cohabitation undermines healthy, lasting relationships

Rather than strengthen marriages, cohabitation undermines the marital bond – which is counter-intuitive.  Sociologists have offered various theories and reasons to explain this phenomenon:

  1. Cohabitation also takes away the special and unique nature of marriage. The only real change is a piece of paper that makes it harder for you to split up.
  2. The practice of cohabitation undermines commitment — the very foundation of an enduring marriage. There is no public commitment made, and no accountability.  “Theirs is essentially a private arrangement based on an emotional bond. The ‘commitment’ of living together is simply a month-to-month rental agreement. ‘As long as you behave yourself and keep me happy, I’ll stick around.’”[9]  David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead noted that “while marriages are held together largely by a strong ethic of commitment, cohabiting relationships by their very nature tend to undercut this ethic.”[10]
  3. Given the fact that marriage involves no real behavior or lifestyle changes for cohabiting couples, one’s view of commitment doesn’t change much after marriage either. It takes more than a piece of paper to get someone out of test-drive mode.
  4. Cohabitation takes away the motivation to build an enduring relationship. “A newly married couple makes a deliberate effort to accommodate each other because they know their relationship will be for life. They want to build compatibility, not test it.”[11]  Cohabiting couples, however, are not as accommodating.  Why throw all your eggs in one basket if you are not sure that basket will be around five years from now?
  5. There is also a lack of relationship boundaries. “Because relationship boundaries and expectations have not been clearly defined, cohabitation becomes prime soil for growing unhealthy relationship skills.”[12]
  6. Cohabitation makes it more likely for people to stay in a bad relationship much longer than they should. They find it too difficult to break up given that they share so much of the same property, and it is more economical.  Eventually they find themselves in their thirties and figure they might as well marry since they’ve been together for so long.  “External pressure to remain together starts to build when a couple moves in together. You move in together, buy a place, get a dog, spend less time with friends and more time alone together, and maybe declare the other as your beneficiary for financial matters—and these things make it more likely that you will stay together. In other words, there is an increasing weight of forces that favor your staying together when you live together.”[13]
  7. Cohabiting couples tend to receive less social support and fewer benefits. While family members are willing to invest their time, energy, and money into a committed relationship, they are not as willing to do so for cohabiting couples.  They reason that if the couple themselves is not committed to the relationship, why should they be?

Cohabitation doesn’t always lead to marriage

Most couples who enter into a cohabiting relationship do so with either the expectation, or at least openness to the possibility, that it will lead to marriage.  And yet, only 60% of cohabiting couples go on to marry.[14]  Why?  Stanton found that “women are consistently more likely to see their cohabitating relationships as a conveyor belt eventually leading to marriage” whereas guys are “more likely to see their cohabiting relationships as the opportunity to see each other more often, have fun together, feel taken care of by their gal, and gain access to more regular sex.”  If you have all the benefits of marriage without the commitment of marriage, why get married?  As the old saying goes, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

Cohabitation favors men, not women

But isn’t marriage anti-women?  Isn’t cohabitation more liberating for women?  Terrell Clemmons addresses this perception head-on: “It’s the live-in arrangement that allows the man to have what he wants, freely enjoying the woman – her company, caretaking, and counterfeit conjugality – without having to become an honorable man first. It allows the boyfriend to evade the responsibilities of manhood and remain instead in a protracted state of boyhood. It is marriage that establishes the relationship on the woman’s terms. It does this by requiring him grow up and become a man for her and for their posterity.”[15]  Cohabitation benefits men, not women.

Conclusion

The National Marriage Project offered this conclusion in 2002:

Despite its widespread acceptance by the young, the remarkable growth of unmarried cohabitation in recent years does not appear to be in children’s or the society’s best interest. The evidence suggests that it has weakened marriage and the intact, two-parent family and thereby damaged our social wellbeing, especially that of women and children. We can not go back in history, but it seems time to establish some guidelines for the practice of cohabitation and to seriously question the further institutionalization of this new family form. In place of institutionalizing cohabitation, in our opinion, we should be trying to revitalize marriage—not along classic male-dominant lines but along modern egalitarian lines.[16]

Given the sociological data, cohabitation is not a true alternative to marriage.  It is an inferior relationship arrangement resulting in more negative social ills.  If you want the best possible relationship, choose marriage rather than cohabitation.

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[1]Many of these reasons were articulated in David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research,” executive summary, second edition; available from http://www.dibbleinstitute.org/Documents/Should_We_Live_Together.pdf; Internet; accessed 11 February 2013.[2]A 2008 Gallop Poll found that 49% of Americans think pre-marital cohabitation makes divorce less likely, while 31% think it makes divorce more likely, 13% do not think it makes a difference, and 7% had no opinion. See http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-07-28-cohabitation-poll_N.htm.
[3]Not all cohabiters have a view to marriage, however – men less than women.  Many couples cohabit out of convenience, while others see it as an alternative to marriage.  David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead report that “After 5 to 7 years, 39% of all cohabiting couples have broken their relationship, 40% have married (although the marriage might not have lasted), and only 21% are still cohabiting,” citing the research of Lynne N. Casper and Suzanne M. Bianchi in Continuity and Change in the American Family (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), ch. 2.  Casper and Bianchi also found that while 46% of cohabiters viewed cohabitation as a precursor to marriage, a follow-up five to seven years later found that only 52% of these couples had actually married, and 31% had split up.  See David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research,” executive summary, second edition; available from http://www.dibbleinstitute.org/Documents/Should_We_Live_Together.pdf; Internet; accessed 11 February 2013.
[4]The point seems to be lost on these people that on a practical and emotional level, there is virtually no difference between the dissolution of a cohabiting relationship and the dissolution of a marital relationship.  The only real differences are the legal requirements and entanglements.
[5]National Survey of Families and Households, cited in “Sociological Reasons Not to Live Together”
[6]National Survey of Families and Households, cited in “Sociological Reasons Not to Live Together”
[7]Alfred DeMaris and William MacDonald, “Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Instability: A Test of the Unconventional Hypothesis.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 55 (1993): 399-407; William J. Axinn and Arland Thornton, “The Relationship Between Cohabitation and Divorce: Selectivity or Causal Influence,” Demography 29-3 (1992):357-374; Robert Schoen “First Unions and the Stability of First Marriages,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 54 (1992):281-284; Elizabeth Thomson and Ugo Colella, “Cohabitation and Marital Stability: Quality or Commitment?” Journal of Marriage and the Family 54 9 (1992):259-267; Lee A Lillard, Michael J. Brien, and Linda J. Waite, “Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Dissolution: A Matter of Self-Selection?” Demography, 32-3 (1995):437-457; David R. Hall and John Z. Zhao, “Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada: Testing the Selectivity Hypothesis,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 57 (1995): 421-427; Marin Clarkberg, Ross M. Stolzenberg, and Linda Waite, “Attitudes, Values, and Entrance into Cohabitational versus Marital Unions,” Social Forces 74-2 (1995):609-634; Stephen L. Nock, “Spouse Preferences of Never-Married, Divorced, and Cohabiting Americans,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 24-3/4 (1995): 91-108.  As reported in David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research,” executive summary, second edition; available from http://www.dibbleinstitute.org/Documents/Should_We_Live_Together.pdf; Internet; accessed 11 February 2013.[8]Lee Robins and Darrel Reiger, Psychiatric Disorders in America. (New York: Free Press, 1990), 72. See also: Susan L. Brown, “The Effect of Union Type on Psychological Well-Being: Depression among Cohabitors versus Marrieds,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 41-3 (2000).
[9]National Survey of Families and Households, cited in “Sociological Reasons Not to Live Together”
[10]David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research,” executive summary, second edition; available from http://www.dibbleinstitute.org/Documents/Should_We_Live_Together.pdf; Internet; accessed 11 February 2013.
[11]National Survey of Families and Households, cited in “Sociological Reasons Not to Live Together”
[12]Terrell Clemmons, “The Ring Makes All the Difference: A Word to the Wise on Cohabitation”; available from http://terrellclemmons.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/the-ring-makes-all-the-difference-a-word-to-the-wise-on-cohabitation/; Internet; accessed 11 August 2012.
[13]Scott M. Stanley & Galena Kline, “Myths About Living Together”; available from http://www.boundless.org/2005/articles/a0001126.cfm
[14]National Survey of Families and Households, cited in “Sociological Reasons Not to Live Together”
[15]Terrell Clemmons, “The Ring Makes All the Difference: A Word to the Wise on Cohabitation”; available from http://terrellclemmons.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/the-ring-makes-all-the-difference-a-word-to-the-wise-on-cohabitation/; Internet; accessed 11 August 2012.
[16]David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research,” executive summary, second edition; available from http://www.dibbleinstitute.org/Documents/Should_We_Live_Together.pdf; Internet; accessed 11 February 2013.

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