The risks of cohabitation
Everyone knows that American family structure is changing. In recent decades, large increases in divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing have dramatically altered the social landscape. But a related social change has received little attention. That’s the extraordinary rise in cohabitation, in which an unmarried man and woman share a household as sexual partners.
Since 1960, cohabitation has increased by over 1,000 percent. Today, about a quarter of unmarried women between 25 and 39 are living with a male partner, and about half report having done so at some time. Recognizing this trend, government and private business have begun to provide cohabiting couples with benefits formerly reserved for married couples, like pensions and health insurance.
What accounts for the phenomenal increase in cohabitation? The sexual revolution has destigmatized extramarital sex, and high divorce rates have fueled skepticism about marriage. Today, young people increasingly think of cohabitation as a “no strings attached” way to assess the compatibility of a potential mate. In a recent survey, over 60 percent of high school seniors agreed that cohabitation is a good way to find out how a couple get along before marriage.
But there’s growing evidence that cohabitation is not an effective way to prepare for marriage, and actually raises the risk of divorce. In June, the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University released a review of recent research on the issue. The report is entitled “Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation Before Marriage” (http://marriage.rutgers.edu).
Among the report’s findings is this: Couples who cohabit before marriage are much more likely to divorce after marriage than those who don’t. In fact, the increased hazard of divorce may be as high as 46 percent. (This does not hold true of engaged couples who cohabit for a short time after setting a wedding date.) Cohabiting couples who don’t marry also break up at a rate that greatly exceeds the nation’s divorce rate.
It’s not hard to see why. Compared with married couples, cohabiting couples report lower levels of happiness, lower levels of sexual exclusivity and poorer relationships with parents. Annual rates of depression among cohabitors are more than three times higher than among married couples. By almost every measure, married couples are better off than cohabitors: On average, they live longer, have better physical and mental health, and are more productive in the labor force.
Cohabitation also poses special risks to women and children. (In 2000, 41 percent of unmarried-couple households included a child under 18.) Female cohabitors are victims of domestic violence far more often than married women, and children in unmarried households are at much greater risk for physical and sexual abuse than those in intact families. Indeed, the most unsafe of all family environments is that in which the mother is living with someone other than her children’s biological father.
What explains these differences between married and cohabiting couples? Partly, it’s “selection effect”: As a group, people who choose to cohabit differ in certain ways from those who don’t. On average, for example, cohabitors are less religious and have lower incomes. In addition, however, the act of cohabitation seems to change people’s attitudes toward marriage in ways that make a stable marriage less likely. Cohabitation is governed by an ethic of low commitment. As a result, cohabiting couples are less likely than married couples to sacrifice for each other, or to develop vital skills of communication and conflict resolution.
For contemporary Americans, cohabitation’s fundamental attraction is its embrace of a hallmark quality of our age: self-absorption. By definition, cohabitation is more about “me” than “we.” Each partner is free to leave the moment he or she no longer feels happy or fulfilled. A cohabiting couple do not promise to stand by one another “for richer, for poorer” or “in sickness and in health.” On the contrary, cohabitation’s great attraction is that it preserves the ability to walk out on a partner when times get tough, without legal or social penalty.
Our society’s growing acceptance of cohabitation as a substitute for marriage is deeply troubling. For despite recent developments, marriage remains the most stable of all family forms. Over millennia, it has proven to be the best vehicle for the transmission of norms and culture from one generation to the next.
The institutionalization of cohabitation will inevitably weaken marriage, because it will prompt young people to view wedlock as just one of many equally acceptable lifestyle choices. The truth is quite different, as we are beginning to discover.
— Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.