Popenoe, David, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. (2002). “Should we live together? What young adults need to know about cohabitation before marriage: A comprehensive review of recent research, second ed. (A report of the National Marriage Project).”
Cohabitation is replacing marriage as the first living together experience for young men and women. When blushing brides walk down the aisle at the beginning of the new millennium, well over half have already lived together with a boyfriend.
For today’s young adults, the first generation to come of age during the divorce revolution, living together seems like a good way to achieve some of the benefits of marriage and avoid the risk of divorce. Couples who live together can share expenses and learn more about each other. They can find out if their partner has what it takes to be married. If things don’t work out, breaking up is easy to do. Cohabiting couples do not have to seek legal or religious permission to dissolve their union.
SHOULD WE LIVE TOGETHER?
Living together — or unmarried cohabitation — is defined as the status of couples who are sexual partners, not married to each other, and sharing a household. By 2000, the total number of unmarried couples in America topped 4.75 million, up from less than 500,000 in 1960.
About a quarter of unmarried women between 25 and 39 are currently living with a partner; about half have lived at some time with an unmarried partner (the data are typically reported for women but not for men). Over half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation, compared to virtually none earlier in the century.
Cohabitation is very prevalent and it enjoys widespread popular acceptance. In recent representative national surveys nearly 66% of high school senior boys and 61% of the girls indicated that they “agreed” or “mostly 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.”
75% of the students, slightly more girls than boys, stated that “a man and a woman who live together without being married” are either “experimenting with a worthwhile alternative lifestyle” or “doing their own thing and not affecting anyone else.”
Thirty years ago, living together for unmarried, heterosexual couples was against the law. It was considered immoral — living in sin — or at the very least highly improper.
This old view is another example of repressive Victorian norms. The new view is that cohabitation represents a more progressive approach to intimate relationships. How much healthier women are to be free of social pressure to marry and stigma when they don’t. How much better off people are today to be able to exercise choice in their sexual and domestic arrangements. How much better off marriage can be, and how many divorces can be avoided, when sexual relationships start with a trial period.
HOW LIVING TOGETHER BEFORE MARRIAGE MAY CONTRIBUTE TO MARITAL FAILURE
The vast majority of young women today want to marry and have children. Many of these women and most young men see cohabitation as a way to test marital compatibility and improve the chances of long-lasting marriage. The reasoning is as follows: Given the high levels of divorce, why be in a hurry to marry? Why not test marital compatibility by sharing a bed and a bathroom with for a year or even longer? If it doesn’t work out, one can simply move out. Accordingly, cohabitation weeds out unsuitable partners through a process of natural de-selection. Over time, perhaps after several living-together relationships, a person will eventually find a marriageable mate.
The social science evidence challenges the idea that cohabiting ensures greater marital compatibility and thereby promotes stronger and more enduring marriages. Although the association was stronger a decade or two ago and has diminished in the younger generations, virtually all research on the topic has determined that the chances of divorce ending a marriage preceded by cohabitation are significantly greater than for a marriage not preceded by cohabitation.
A 1992 study of 3,300 cases (1987 National Survey of Families & Households), found that in their marriages prior cohabitors “are estimated to have a hazard of dissolution that is about 46% higher than for noncohabitors.”
There are several possible explanations for the striking statistical association between cohabitation and divorce.
• People willing to cohabit are more unconventional than others and less committed to the institution of marriage. These are the people who more easily will leave a marriage if it becomes troublesome.…No positive contribution of cohabitation to marriage has been found. The reasons for cohabitation’s negative effect are not fully understood.
• Marriages are held together largely by a strong ethic of commitment; cohabiting relationships by their nature tend to undercut this ethic. Cohabitants tend not to be as committed as married couples in their dedication to the continuation of the relationship and reluctance to terminate it, and they are more oriented toward their own personal autonomy. It is reasonable to speculate, based on these studies, that once this low-commitment, high-autonomy pattern of relating is learned, it becomes hard to unlearn.
• Cohabitation may change partners’ attitudes toward the institution of marriage, contributing to either making marriage less likely, or if marriage takes place, less successful. A 1997 longitudinal study concluded, “cohabitation increased young people’s acceptance of divorce, but other independent living experiences did not.” And “the more months of exposure to cohabitation that young people experienced, the less enthusiastic they were toward marriage and childbearing.”
Particularly problematic is serial cohabitation. One study determined that the effect of cohabitation on later marital instability is found only when one or both partners had previously cohabited with someone other than their spouse.
A reason for this could be that the experience of dissolving one cohabiting relationship generates a greater willingness to dissolve later relationships. People’s tolerance for unhappiness is diminished, and they will scrap a marriage that might otherwise be salvaged. This may be similar to the attitudinal effects of divorce; going through a divorce makes one more tolerant of divorce.
An important caveat must be inserted here. There is a growing understanding among researchers that different types and life-patterns of cohabitation must be distinguished clearly from each other. Cohabitation that is an immediate prelude to marriage, or prenuptial cohabitation — both partners are definitely planning to marry in the near future, have formally announced their engagement and have picked a wedding date — is different from other forms. There is some evidence to support the proposition that living together for a short period of time with the person one intends to marry has no adverse effects on the subsequent marriage. Cohabitation in this case appears to be very similar to marriage; it merely takes place during the engagement period. This appears to be less true, when one or both of the partners has had prior experience with cohabitation, or brings children into the relationship.
COHABITATION AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO MARRIAGE
According to the latest information available, 46% of all cohabitations in a given year can be classified as precursors to marriage. Most of the remainder can be considered some form of alternative to marriage, including trial marriages, and their number is increasing.
Except perhaps for the short term prenuptial type of cohabitation, and probably also for the post-marriage cohabiting relationships of seniors and retired people who typically cohabit rather than marry for economic reasons, cohabitation and marriage relationships are qualitatively different. Cohabiting couples report lower levels of happiness, lower levels of sexual exclusivity and sexual satisfaction, and poorer relationships with their parents. One reason is that…in unmarried cohabitation “levels of certainty about the relationship are lower than in marriage.”
Cohabiting is inherently much less stable than marriage… especially in view of the fact that it is easier to terminate. The break-up rate of cohabitors is far higher than for married partners.
Married couples have substantial benefits over the unmarried in labor force productivity, physical and mental health, general happiness, and longevity. There is evidence that these benefits are diluted for couples who are not married but merely cohabiting. Among the probable reasons for the benefits of marriage, as summarized by University of Chicago demographer Linda Waite, are:
• The long-term contract implicit in marriage. This facilitates emotional investment in the relationship, including the close monitoring of each other’s behavior. The longer time horizon also makes specialization more likely; working as a couple, individuals can develop those skills in which they excel, leaving others to their partner.
• The greater sharing of economic and social resources by married couples. In addition to economies of scale, this enables couples to act as a small insurance pool against life uncertainties, reducing each person’s need to protect themselves from unexpected events.
• The better connection of married couples to the larger community. This includes other individuals and groups (such as in-laws) as well as social institutions such as churches and synagogues. These can be important sources of social and emotional support and material benefits.
Annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times what they are among married couples. And women in cohabiting relationships are more likely than married women to suffer physical and sexual abuse.
WHY COHABITATION IS HARMFUL FOR CHILDREN
Of all the types of cohabitation, that involving children is by far the most problematic. In 2000, 41% of all unmarried-couple households included a child under eighteen, up from only 21% in 1987. For unmarried couples in the 25-34 age group the percentage with children is higher still, approaching half of all such households. By one recent estimate nearly half of all children today will spend some time in a cohabiting family before age 16.
One of the greatest problems for children living with a cohabiting couple is the high risk the couple will break up. Fully 75% of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16, whereas only about 33% of children born to married parents face a similar fate. One reason is that marriage rates for cohabiting couples have been plummeting. In the last decade, the proportion of cohabiting mothers who go on to eventually marry the child’s father declined from 57% to 44%.
Parental break up…almost always entails a myriad of personal and social difficulties for children, some of which can be long lasting. For the children of a cohabiting couple these may come on top of a plethora of already existing problems. Several studies have found that children currently living with a mother and her unmarried partner have significantly more behavior problems and lower academic performance than children from intact families.
The great majority of children in unmarried-couple households were born not in the present union but in a previous union of one of the adult partners, usually the mother. This means that they are living with an unmarried “stepfather” or mother’s boyfriend, with whom the economic and social relationships are often tenuous.
Child abuse has become a major national problem and has increased dramatically in recent years, by more than 10% a year according to one estimate. Many think this increase is related strongly to changing family forms. American data do not enable us to distinguish the abuse that takes place in married-couple households from that in cohabiting-couple households. We do have abuse-prevalence studies that look at stepparent families (both married and unmarried) and mother’s boyfriends (both cohabiting and dating).
Both show far higher levels of child abuse than is found in intact families. The evidence suggests that the most unsafe of all family environments for children is that in which the mother is living with someone other than the child’s biological father. This is the environment for the majority of children in cohabiting couple households.
Part of these differences are due to differing income levels of the families involved. Cohabiting couples are economically more like single parents than like married couples. The 1996 poverty rate for children living in married couple households was about 6%, it was 31% for children living in cohabiting households, and 45% for children living in families headed by single mothers.
One of the most important social science findings of recent years is that marriage is a wealth enhancing institution. According to one study, childrearing cohabiting couples have only about two-thirds of the income of married couples with children, mainly due to the fact that the average income of male cohabiting partners is only about half that of male married partners. The selection effect is surely at work here, with less well-off men and their partners choosing cohabitation over marriage.
It also is the case that men when they marry, especially those who then go on to have children, tend to become more responsible and productive. They earn more than their unmarried counterparts.
Another factor is the private transfer of wealth among extended family members, which is considerably lower for cohabiting than for married couples.
WHO COHABITS AND WHY
Why has unmarried cohabitation become such a widespread practice throughout the modern world in such a short period of time? Demographic factors are surely involved. Puberty begins at an earlier age, as does the onset of sexual activity, and marriages take place at older ages mainly because of the longer time period spent getting educated and establishing careers. Thus there is an extended period of sexually active singlehood before first marriage. Our sustained material affluence enable many young people to live on their own for an extended time, apart from their parents. During those years of young adulthood, nonmarital cohabitation can be a cost-saver, a source of companionship, and an assurance of relatively safe sexual fulfillment.
The rise of cohabitation in the advanced nations has been attributed to the sexual revolution, which has virtually revoked the stigma against cohabitation.
In the past thirty years, with the advent of effective contraceptive technologies and widespread sexual permissiveness, premarital sex has become widely accepted. In large segments of the population cohabitation no longer is associated with sin or social impropriety or pathology, nor are cohabiting couples subject to much disapproval.
Another important reason is that the institution of marriage has changed dramatically, leading to an erosion of confidence in its stability. From a tradition strongly buttressed by economics, religion, and the law, marriage has become a more personalized relationship. People used to marry not just for love but also for family and economic considerations. If love died during the course of a marriage, this was not a sufficient reason to break up an established union. A divorce was legally difficult if not impossible to get, and people who divorced faced enormous social stigma.
In today’s marriages love is all, and it is a love tied to self-fulfillment. Divorce is available to everyone, with little stigma attached. If either love or a sense of self-fulfillment disappear, the marriage is considered to be over and divorce is the logical outcome. Fully aware of this new fragility of marriage, people are taking cautionary actions. The attitude is either try it out first and make sure that it will work, or try to minimize the damage of breakup by settling for a weaker form of union, one that avoids a marriage license and, if need be, an eventual divorce.
The growth of cohabitation is also associated with the rise of feminism. Traditional marriage, both in law and in practice, typically involved male leadership. For some women, cohabitation seemingly avoids the legacy of patriarchy and at the same time provides more personal autonomy and equality in the relationship. Moreover, women’s shift into the labor force and their growing economic independence make marriage less necessary and, for some, less desirable.
Underlying all of these trends is the broad cultural shift from a more religious society where marriage was considered the bedrock of civilization and people were imbued with a strong sense of social conformity and tradition, to a more secular society focused on individual autonomy and self invention. This cultural rejection of traditional institutional and moral authority, evident in all of the advanced, Western societies, often has had “freedom of choice” as its theme and the acceptance of “alternative lifestyles” as its message.
In general, cohabitation is a phenomenon that began among the young in the lower classes and then moved up to the middle classes. Cohabitation in America — especially as an alternative to marriage — is more common among Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and disadvantaged white women. One reason for this is that male income and employment are lower among minorities and the lower classes, and male economic status remains an important determinant as to whether or not a man feels ready to marry, and a woman wants to marry him. Cohabitation is also more common among those who are less religious than their peers.
People who cohabit are much more likely to come from broken homes. Among young adults, those who experienced parental divorce, fatherlessness, or high levels of marital discord during childhood are more likely to form cohabiting unions than children who grew up in families with married parents who got along. They are also more likely to enter living-together relationships at younger ages.
For young people who have already suffered the losses associated with parental divorce, cohabitation may provide an early escape from family turmoil, although unfortunately it increases the likelihood of new losses and turmoil. Finally, cohabitation is a much more likely experience for those who themselves have been divorced.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST LIVING TOGETHER BEFORE MARRIAGE IN MODERN SOCIETIES?
On one side is the religiously inspired view that living with someone outside of marriage, indeed all premarital sex, represents an assault on the sanctity of marriage. If you are ready for sex you are ready for marriage and the two should always go together, following biblical injunction. This side is typically supportive of early marriage as an antidote to sexual promiscuity, and as worthwhile in its own right.
The other side, based in secular thought, holds that we can’t realistically expect people to remain sexually abstinent from today’s puberty at age eleven or twelve (even earlier for some) to marriage in the late twenties, which is empirically the most desirable age for insuring a lasting union. Therefore, it is better that they cohabit during that time with a few others than be promiscuous with many.
This side also finds the idea of a trial marriage quite appealing. Modern societies in any event have become so highly sexualized and the practice of cohabitation has become so widely accepted that there is no way to stop it.
The anti-cohabitation perspective believes in linking sex to marriage, but fails to answer the question of how to postpone sex until marriage at a time when the age of marriage has risen to an average of almost 26, the highest in this century. Cold showers, anyone? Nor is there evidence to support the idea that marriage at a younger age is a good solution. On the contrary, teenage marriages, for example, have a much higher risk of breaking up than do marriages among young adults in their twenties. The reasons are fairly obvious; at older ages people are more emotionally mature and established in their jobs and careers, and usually better able to know what they want in a lifetime mate.
Pro-cohabitation arguments recognize the demographic and social realities but fail to answer another question: if the aim is to have a strong, lifelong marriage, and for most people it still is, can cohabitation be of any help? The statistical data are unsupportive on this point. So far, at least, living together before marriage has been remarkably unsuccessful as a generator of happy and long-lasting marriages.
SHOULD UNMARRIED COHABITATION BE INSTITUTIONALIZED?
No state has established cohabitation as a legal relationship. Most states have now decriminalized “consensual sexual acts” among adults, which include cohabitation. In lieu of state laws, some marriage-like rights of cohabitors have gradually been established through the courts.…Courts have begun to rule more frequently that cohabitors do have certain rights based on such concepts as “equitable principles.” The legal changes underway mean that cohabitation is becoming less of a “no-strings attached” phenomenon, one involving some of the benefits of marriage with none of the costly legal procedures and financial consequences of divorce.…The proposition that unmarried couples have the right to form contracts has come to be widely acknowledged.
In an attempt to reduce the uncertainties of the legal system, some cohabitors are now initiating formal “living together contracts.” Others seek to secure the rights of married couples in such matters as inheritance and child custody. Marriage-like fiscal and legal benefits are also beginning to come to cohabiting couples — be they gay, lesbian, or unmarried heterosexual couples.
Cohabitation has become an accepted new social institution in most northern European countries, and in several Scandinavian nations cohabitors have virtually the same legal rights as married couples. In Sweden and Denmark, for example, the world’s cohabitation leaders, cohabitors and married couples have the same rights and obligations in taxation, welfare benefits, inheritance, and child care. Only a few differences remain, such as the right to adopt children, but even that difference may soon disappear. Not incidentally, Sweden also has the lowest marriage rate ever recorded (and one of the highest divorce rates); an estimated 30% of all couples sharing a household in Sweden today are unmarried. For many Swedish and Danish couples cohabiting has become a substitute for, rather than a prelude to, marriage, and virtually all marriages in these nations are now preceded by cohabitation.
As the practice of cohabitation in America becomes increasingly common, popular distinctions between cohabitation and marriage are fading. In short, the legal, social and religious barriers to cohabitation are weak and likely to get weaker. Unless there is an unexpected turnaround, America and the other Anglo countries, plus the rest of northern Europe, do appear to be headed in the direction of Scandinavia.
In a world where close relationships are in increasingly short supply, why not recognize and support such relationships in whatever form they occur? Surely this is the approach that would seem to blend social justice and compassion with the goal of personal freedom. But is it not in society’s greater interest to foster long-term, committed relationships among childrearing couples? It is only marriage that has the implicit long-term contract, greater sharing of economic and social resources, and better connection to the larger community.
As the alternatives to marriage are strengthened, the institution of marriage is bound to weaken. After all, if cohabitors have the same rights and responsibilities as married couples, why bother to marry? Why bother, indeed, if society itself expresses no strong preference one way or the other. It is simpler and less complicated to live together.
While the granting of certain marriage-like legal rights to cohabiting couples may be advisable in some circumstances to protect children and other dependents in the event of couple break up, an extensive granting of such rights serves to undercut an essential institution that is already established to regulate family relationships.
SOME PRINCIPLES TO GUIDE THE PRACTICE OF COHABITATION BEFORE MARRIAGE
Unmarried cohabitation has become a prominent feature of modern life and is undoubtedly here to stay in some form. …Yet by all of the empirical evidence at our disposal, not to mention the wisdom of the ages, the institution of marriage remains a cornerstone of a successful society. The practice of cohabitation, far from being a friend of marriage, looks more and more like its enemy. As a goal of social change, perhaps the best that we can hope for is to contain cohabitation in ways that minimize its damage to marriage.
With that goal in mind, are there any principles that we might give to young adults to guide their thinking about living together before marriage? Because men and women differ somewhat in their sexual and mate-selection strategies, cohabitation often has a different meaning for each sex. Women tend to see it as a step toward eventual marriage, while men regard it more as a sexual opportunity without the ties of long-term commitment.
In summary, here are four principles concerning living together before marriage that seem most likely to promote, or at least not curtail, long-term committed relationships among childrearing couples:
• Consider not living together at all before marriage.
• Do not make a habit of cohabiting.
• Limit cohabitation to the shortest possible period of time.
• Do not cohabit if children are involved.
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.
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. Particularly helpful in this regard would be educating young people about marriage from the early school years onward, getting them to make the wisest choices in their lifetime mates, and stressing the importance of long-term commitment to marriages. Such an educational venture could build on the fact that a huge majority of our nation’s young people still express the strong desire to be in a long-term monogamous marriage.
SAMPLE EXAM ITEMS
ONE. As reported by to Popenoe, cohabitating couples with children have only about two-thirds of the income that married couples with children have. What explanation is given for this?
a. current tax laws substantially penalize unmarried couples
b. married couples have fewer children
c. average income of female cohabitating partners is only about half that of female married partners
d. more family benefits are available for married couples
e. married couples have been together longer
f. average income of male cohabitating partners is only about half that of male married partners@
TWO. fill in the blank. As reported by Popenoe, a 1992 study of 3,300 cases, found that prior cohabitors are estimated to have a hazard of dissolution in their marriages that is about _______ higher than for noncohabitors in their marriages.