Don’t Confuse It with Marriage

The loss of marriage as a social ideal expresses itself in multiple fashions, including moves by researchers and governments to lump married persons and cohabitants into the same statistical (as well as tax and legal) category. In fact, some observers hope that rising levels of cohabitation will minimize or eliminate existing differences between the two. Yet a study in Norway, where cohabitation and marriage are treated as near equals—and where the former is more commonplace than the latter among adults under 35—found less support for cohabitation being like marriage than the researchers anticipated.

Looking at a sample of nearly 2,500 respondents under age 59 to the first wave (2002–03) of the Norwegian Life Course, Aging, and Generation study, the researchers explored how four categories of married couples and cohabitants fared against three measures of well-being commonly used in marital research. While they did not uncover large disparities as have other studies, differences across the four types of couples (never-married cohabitants, previously married cohabitants, first-time married couples, and remarried couples) were significant for the relationship quality index (p<.05), relationship satisfaction (p<.01), and life satisfaction (p<.001). Even as the effect sizes were small, the differences were due in all cases to never-married cohabitants reporting lower scores than the three other couple categories. The similarities of the other three couple categories are reflected in, for example, formerly married cohabitants reporting the same levels of well-being as married persons (whether in their first or subsequent marriages).

In tests that controlled for age, gender, education, union duration, and number of children, the handicaps faced by never-married cohabitants in relationship quality and relationship satisfaction remained significant. First-married persons reported higher scores on these two measures than never-married cohabitants but lower scores than remarried persons.

The researchers downplay the low scores of the never-married cohabitants, play up the similarities of the other three couple groups, and question the practical significance of marriage. Yet in demonstrating how relationship histories can alter expectations of subsequent union formations, they do suggest that marriage is something different (and perhaps better) than cohabitation, offering particular value to the never-married relative to the divorced or widowed: “Marriage may add value to relationships in that it promotes commitment, stability, security, and joint investment, which may ultimately heighten satisfaction levels.” Qualified praise, but praise nonetheless.

(Thomas Hansen et al., “Relational and Individual Well-Being Among Cohibators and Married Individuals in Midlife: Recent Trends from Norway,” Journal of Family Issues 28 [July 2007]: 910–33.)