Cohabitation is a tentative, nonlegal coresidential union that does not require or imply a lifetime commitment to stay together. Perhaps as a result, cohabiting unions break up at a much higher rate than do marriages. Cohabitors have no responsibility for financial support of their partner, and most do not pool financial resources. Cohabitors are more likely than married couples both to value separate leisure activities and to keep their social lives independent and are much less likely than husbands and wives to be monogamous. Cohabitors may choose this arrangement because it carries no formal constraints or responsibilities.
A substantial proportion of cohabiting couples have definite plans to marry, and these couples tend to behave like already-married couples. Others have no plans to marry, and these tentative and uncommitted relationships are quite fragile. The tentative, impermanent, and socially unsupported nature of this latter type of cohabitation impedes the ability of this type of partnership to deliver many of the benefits of marriage, as do the relatively separate lives typically pursued by cohabiting partners. The uncertainty about the stability and longevity of the relationship makes both investment in the relationship and specialization with this partner much riskier than in marriage, for the partners themselves and for their extended families, friends, and communities. The lack of sharing typical of cohabitors disadvantages the women and their children in these families relative to the men, because women typically earn less than men; this is especially true for mothers. Cohabitation seems to distance people from some important social institutions, especially organized religion. Young men and women who define themselves as “religious” are less likely to cohabit, and those who cohabit subsequently become less religious.
Parenting and Sex
Cohabitation has become an increasingly important— but poorly delineated—context for childrearing. One quarter of current stepfamilies involve cohabiting couples, and a significant proportion of “single-parent” families are actually two-parent cohabiting families. The parenting role of a cohabiting partner toward the child(ren) of the other person is extremely vaguely defined and lacks both social and legal support.
Cohabiting men and women report slightly more sexual activity than married people. But cohabiting men and women are less likely than those who are married to be monogamous, although virtually all say that they expect their relationship to be sexually exclusive.
Commitment and Housework
Studies show that cohabiting people with no plans to marry are significantly less committed to their partner and to the partnership itself than are husbands and wives. Cohabiting men score lower on commitment than any other group.
One study found that married women spend 14 hours more on housework than married men do, while women who are cohabiting spend about 10 hours more on housework than cohabiting men. On this dimension, then, cohabitation is a better “deal” for women than marriage. Some economists argue that husbands compensate their wives for their time in work for the family by sharing their income with them. But cohabiting women generally do not share their partner’s earnings, so they may be doing extra housework without extra pay.
Wealth and Emotional Well-Being
Married couples link their fates—including their finances. Among families with children, cohabiting couples have the lowest average level of wealth, comparable to families headed by a single mother. Intact two-parent families and stepfamilies have the highest level of wealth, followed at a distance by families headed by a single father. Unlike single-parent families, cohabiting couples have two potential earners, so their very low levels of wealth are a cause for concern, especially for the children living in these families. Financial uncertainty, especially low male earnings, reduces the chances that cohabiting couples will marry.
Cohabitors report more depression and less satisfaction with life than do married people. The key seems to lie in being in a relationship that one thinks will last. Marriage is, by design and agreement, for the long run, and married people tend to see their relationships as much more stable than do cohabitors. Relationship instability is often distressing, leading to anxiety and symptoms of depression. Thus, cohabitors with no plans to marry tend to show lower psychological well-being than similar married people. Worrying that one’s relationship will break up is especially distressing for cohabiting women with children, who show quite high levels of depression as a result.
Most cohabitors say that ensuring compatibility before marriage is an important reason why they wanted to live together. But people who cohabit and then marry are much more likely to divorce than people who married without living together. People who cohabit tend to have other characteristics that both lead them to cohabit in the first place and make them poor marriage material, accounting for the higher divorce rates for those who cohabited. But some scholars argue that the experience of cohabitation itself makes subsequent marriages less stable.
Couples who live together with no definite plans to marry are making a different bargain than couples who marry or than engaged cohabitors. The bargain is definitely not marriage and is “marriage-like” only in that couples share an active sex life and a house or apartment. Cohabiting men tend to be quite uncommitted to the relationship; cohabiting women with children tend to be quite uncertain about its future. Cohabiting couples have lower earnings and less wealth than married couples, perhaps disadvantaging the children in them. Cohabiting couples with plans to marry, on the other hand, are indistinguishable on most dimensions from married couples.
- Booth, Alan and Ann C. Crouter. 2002. Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation for Children, Families, and Social Policy. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Smock, Pamela J. 2000. “Cohabitation in the United States: An Appraisal of Research Themes, Findings, and Implications.” Annual Review of Sociology 26:1-20.
- Waite, Linda J. and Maggie Gallagher. 2000. The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. New York: Doubleday.
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