The Differences Between Marriage and Cohabitation

Marriage rates are at an all-time low, a fact that has ramifications for all of us. Most people have no clue about the differences between marriage and cohabitation, thus they are completely blasé about a trend that undermines one of the basic foundations of civil society. I developed the following chart to note the significant differences between the two relationships.

Marriage
Cohabitation
formally "defined" and publicly acknowledged commitment
private, informal, undefined, uncertain "arrangement"
pact with legal standing, privileges, obligations, and responsibilities
limited, ambiguous commitment, without clear, binding obligations
all-encompassing, total commitment of fidelity and complete sharing
tenuous, transient conditional "understanding" with partial sharing
two interdependent individuals in an exclusive bond
two independent individuals jointly occupying space

The number of couples in the United States who are "living together" without marriage has increased nearly 1,000 percent since 1970. Living together has become the "normative experience," with nearly 50 percent of young adults aged twenty to forty cohabiting. Moreover, the percentage of women in their late thirties who said that they had cohabited at least once reached 48 percent in 1995. And over one-third of the resulting households include children.

This trend is producing a cultural transformation that has profound ramifications for both people and public policies. As cohabitation precedes marriage, this temporary arrangement displaces marriage as the locus of sexual intimacy. Clearly, when the prevailing attitude is that having sex is "no big deal" and entails no commitment, then moving in and living together with no strings becomes that much more likely.

There are those who see no problem with this change in household arrangement and family structure. Some people argue that now that so many people enjoy affluence, the increase in cohabitation simply reflects people's indulgence, individualism, and preference for independence. Others say that marriage is unnecessary and irrelevant. They argue that the quality of relationships in a household is more important than the "piece of paper" that constitutes, in their minds, the only difference between marriage and cohabitation. Family structure, in other words, is useless in their view.

Contemporary research findings follow a general pattern regardless of nationality, age of partners, or income of the couple. Across cultures and over time, cohabitation is distinctly different from marriage, and it produces distinctly different -- and decidedly inferior --outcomes.

Sometimes couples choose to live together as a substitute for marriage even though they profess love for each other and want a permanent relationship. They explain that if the relationship goes sour, they want to avoid the trouble, expense, and emotional trauma of a divorce. The couple does not understand that without the commitment of marriage, there is little incentive or likelihood that they will work through their problems or that they will maintain the relationship under pressure. It is more likely that one or the other will "cut and run" when conflict arises, since each person's individuality is more likely stronger than their relationship together.

What research shows is that cohabitating relationships in the United States tend to be fragile and relatively short in duration: less than half of cohabiting relationships last five or more years. Typically, they last about eighteen months. Not surprisingly, partners in a cohabitating relationship are more likely to be unfaithful to each other than are married couples. Research conducted at Western Washington University found that there is less sexual fidelity between cohabiting partners, with 20 percent of the cohabiting women cheating compared with only 4 percent of the married women. The National Sex Survey (polling 3,500 people) reported that men in cohabitating relationships are 4 times more likely to be unfaithful than husbands and that women in cohabitating relationships are 8 times more likely to cheat than are wives.

Many couples say that they want to live together to see if they are compatible, not realizing that cohabitation is more a preparation for divorce than it is a way to strengthen the likelihood of a successful marriage. A study on premarital cohabitation conducted by researchers from Yale University, Columbia University, and the Institute for Resource Development at Westinghouse revealed that the divorce rates of women who cohabitate are nearly 80 percent higher than the rates of those who do not. Reviewing the literature, University of Michigan researcher Pamela Smock concurs, concluding that contrary to common expectations, "premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and to increase the risk of divorce."

As the consensus about the detrimental effects of unmarried relationships grows stronger among researchers who study family life, more people are becoming aware of the dramatic and powerful differences between marriage and cohabitation. Given the seriousness of the decline in marriage and the ramifications that are so harmful to everyone, including the larger society, it is past time for a fact-fueled revolution to overthrow the pernicious anti-marriage myths that took root in the 1960s and 1970s. The costs of continuing the current trends are simply too high.
Marriage rates are at an all-time low, a fact that has ramifications for all of us. Most people have no clue about the differences between marriage and cohabitation, thus they are completely blasé about a trend that undermines one of the basic foundations of civil society. I developed the following chart to note the significant differences between the two relationships.

Marriage
Cohabitation
formally "defined" and publicly acknowledged commitment
private, informal, undefined, uncertain "arrangement"
pact with legal standing, privileges, obligations, and responsibilities
limited, ambiguous commitment, without clear, binding obligations
all-encompassing, total commitment of fidelity and complete sharing
tenuous, transient conditional "understanding" with partial sharing
two interdependent individuals in an exclusive bond
two independent individuals jointly occupying space

The number of couples in the United States who are "living together" without marriage has increased nearly 1,000 percent since 1970. Living together has become the "normative experience," with nearly 50 percent of young adults aged twenty to forty cohabiting. Moreover, the percentage of women in their late thirties who said that they had cohabited at least once reached 48 percent in 1995. And over one-third of the resulting households include children.

This trend is producing a cultural transformation that has profound ramifications for both people and public policies. As cohabitation precedes marriage, this temporary arrangement displaces marriage as the locus of sexual intimacy. Clearly, when the prevailing attitude is that having sex is "no big deal" and entails no commitment, then moving in and living together with no strings becomes that much more likely.

There are those who see no problem with this change in household arrangement and family structure. Some people argue that now that so many people enjoy affluence, the increase in cohabitation simply reflects people's indulgence, individualism, and preference for independence. Others say that marriage is unnecessary and irrelevant. They argue that the quality of relationships in a household is more important than the "piece of paper" that constitutes, in their minds, the only difference between marriage and cohabitation. Family structure, in other words, is useless in their view.

Contemporary research findings follow a general pattern regardless of nationality, age of partners, or income of the couple. Across cultures and over time, cohabitation is distinctly different from marriage, and it produces distinctly different -- and decidedly inferior --outcomes.

Sometimes couples choose to live together as a substitute for marriage even though they profess love for each other and want a permanent relationship. They explain that if the relationship goes sour, they want to avoid the trouble, expense, and emotional trauma of a divorce. The couple does not understand that without the commitment of marriage, there is little incentive or likelihood that they will work through their problems or that they will maintain the relationship under pressure. It is more likely that one or the other will "cut and run" when conflict arises, since each person's individuality is more likely stronger than their relationship together.

What research shows is that cohabitating relationships in the United States tend to be fragile and relatively short in duration: less than half of cohabiting relationships last five or more years. Typically, they last about eighteen months. Not surprisingly, partners in a cohabitating relationship are more likely to be unfaithful to each other than are married couples. Research conducted at Western Washington University found that there is less sexual fidelity between cohabiting partners, with 20 percent of the cohabiting women cheating compared with only 4 percent of the married women. The National Sex Survey (polling 3,500 people) reported that men in cohabitating relationships are 4 times more likely to be unfaithful than husbands and that women in cohabitating relationships are 8 times more likely to cheat than are wives.

Many couples say that they want to live together to see if they are compatible, not realizing that cohabitation is more a preparation for divorce than it is a way to strengthen the likelihood of a successful marriage. A study on premarital cohabitation conducted by researchers from Yale University, Columbia University, and the Institute for Resource Development at Westinghouse revealed that the divorce rates of women who cohabitate are nearly 80 percent higher than the rates of those who do not. Reviewing the literature, University of Michigan researcher Pamela Smock concurs, concluding that contrary to common expectations, "premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and to increase the risk of divorce."

As the consensus about the detrimental effects of unmarried relationships grows stronger among researchers who study family life, more people are becoming aware of the dramatic and powerful differences between marriage and cohabitation. Given the seriousness of the decline in marriage and the ramifications that are so harmful to everyone, including the larger society, it is past time for a fact-fueled revolution to overthrow the pernicious anti-marriage myths that took root in the 1960s and 1970s. The costs of continuing the current trends are simply too high.