Cohabitation Still Not Measuring Up

Family and relationship scholars have observed the growing trend toward cohabitation with wonder. Is this a new substitute, as most such scholars claim, for the old-fashioned concept of marriage? Or is it a passing behavioral blip?

One argument runs thus: Yes, cohabitation tends to be associated with slightly lower rates of happiness and commitment, but that is only because it is still in its infancy. Eventually, cohabitation will replace marriage altogether as the relationship of choice, and at that point, the two will confer exactly the same benefits on couples.

Alas, new data from the National Marriage Project and The Wheatley Institution should help to put such claims to rest. In a careful analysis of the NMP/Wheatley Institution research brief, Institute for Family Studies scholars W. Bradford Wilcox, Jeffrey Dew, and Alysse ElHage identify the relevant findings. 

The authors begin by highlighting the need for such research: “[A]s cohabiting became more prevalent and accepted in the U.S.,” some posited that “it would begin to look more like marriage.” “However,” the scholars found, “research continues to confirm key differences.”

Overall, “married individuals were 12 percentage points more likely to report being in the high relationship satisfaction group, 26 percentage points more likely to report being in the highest stability group, and 15 percentage points more likely to report being in the highest commitment group.” These findings persist even after adjusting for a variety of different life circumstances (socioeconomic status, age, health, etc.). “These findings,” continue the authors, “confirm previous research showing that cohabiting relationships have lower levels of commitment, higher rates of infidelity and conflict, and are significantly more likely to end than married relationships.” 

Interestingly enough, even though many researchers point to Europe for examples of where and how cohabitation and marriage have become more and more alike, the authors note that “cohabiting relationships are significantly more likely to break up than married relationships, including cohabiting unions that include children, and this holds true even in places, like Europe, where cohabitation has been an accepted practice a lot longer.” They point to the countries of Norway and France as examples of places where “married couples still enjoy a ‘stability premium.’”

In other words, couples thinking they are “playing it safe” by testing the relationship waters through cohabitation should take a hard look at the reality that even after decades of normalization, cohabitation still doesn’t measure up to marriage.

(W. Bradford Wilcox, Jeffrey Dew, and Alysse ElHage, “Cohabitation Doesn’t Compare: Marriage, Cohabitation, and Relationship Quality,” Institute for Family Studies, Web, February 7, 2019.)