Cohabiting in America

Cohabitation has been on the rise in America for decades now, as couples either delay marriage or forego it altogether in favor of living together. And while many researchers all over the world continue to hypothesize that perhaps it may one day take the place of  marriage or at least be equal to it, for now, many, many differences remain. A new Pew Research Center report highlights some of those differences as well as the trends in cohabitation in the United States.

To begin, the report highlights that “The share of U.S. adults who are currently married has declined modestly in recent decades, from 58% in 1995 to 53% today,” while the share of unmarried adults living together has risen from 3% to 7% in the same period. But while the numbers of cohabiting adults are still much smaller than the numbers of married adults, “the share of adults ages 18 to 44 who have ever lived with an unmarried partner (59%) has surpassed the share who have ever been married (50%).” Younger Americans tend to view cohabitation more positively, while older adults view it more negatively. Religious affiliation also plays a role in views on cohabitation: “About three-quarters of Catholics (74%) and white Protestants who do not self-identify as born-again or evangelical (76%) say it’s acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together even if they don’t plan to get married. By contrast, only 47% of black Protestants and 35% of white evangelical Protestants share this view.”

Nonetheless, there are some key differences between cohabitation and marriage, and marriage comes out ahead in the comparison. To begin with, “Married adults have higher levels of relationship satisfaction and trust than those living with an unmarried partner”—this satisfaction encompasses a range of attitudes and activities, including things like how well they believe the relationship is going, and also how fairly they believe chores are divided. 

Another key finding is that the reasons that couples get married and the reasons they decide to cohabit are rather different. Married couples tended to say more often that they married for love, companionship, because they wanted to have children, or because they wanted a formal commitment. Conversely, cohabiting couples reported reasons such as “it made sense financially,” convenience, and “testing” the relationship. 

Many studies have documented that cohabitation is leading to marriage less often than it used to, and that finding is also true in this survey. Less than half (44%) of adults living together with their partner and who were not engaged when they first began living together saw cohabiting as a step toward marriage. (In this, education plays a significant role, with the more educated being more likely to report seeing cohabitation as a step toward marriage than the less educated.)

Other findings include the facts that: “Two-thirds of cohabiters who want to get married someday cite either their own or their partner’s finances as a reason why they’re not engaged or married”; “Younger adults are more likely to see cohabitation as a path to a successful marriage”; “A majority of Americans say cohabiting couples can raise children just as well as married couples”; “Most Americans favor allowing unmarried couples to have the same legal rights as married couples”; and “Most don’t see being married as essential to living a fulfilling life.”

Given the first finding—that married couples report higher levels of trust and satisfaction—we might ponder why Americans are still so accepting of cohabitation as a functional equivalent to marriage. The data continue to say otherwise. 

(Pew Research Center, November 2019, “Marriage and Cohabitation in the U.S.”)