What Cohabitation Does for Marriage

There are some curious things going on with cohabitation and marriage that seem to tell two different stories.

First, the folks at Pew recently told us (see p. 36) that young adults have the strongest desire to marry of any generation alive today. Other data supports this. And the unmarried folks in other generations are not, nor have ever been, disinterested in marriage.

But unmarried cohabitation is the fastest growing family/domestic form in the United States as well as most of the Western world. It’s exploding, having increased 15-fold since 1960. And that growth has more than doubled in real numbers since the mid-1990s in the U.S. and by much more than that in other countries. In fact, more than 60 percent of marriages today are preceded by some form of cohabitation.

Young adults are pro-marriage, but cohabitation is sky-rocketing. Is this ironic, or does it make complete sense?

I address this curious question — and many others — in my latest book, The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage. In preparation for writing this book, I carefully collected and read nearly all the leading published academic studies on cohabitation published over the past 30 years. Yes, I’m a sad research nerd. And my book explains in plain, straightforward language what this impressive body of literature teaches us.

Most people cohabiting today (75%) see their live-in relationship as some kind of step toward marriage, and 62 percent of young adults believe cohabiting before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce. Very few are cohabiting with no eye toward marriage. And these marriage-minded folks are either cohabiting as a test drive of a potential marriage or are cohabiting with Mr. or Mrs. I Don’t Think So as a place holder until Mr. or Mrs. Right comes along.

But how wise of an idea is cohabitation? Is there a track record to examine? These are critical questions to ask because many millions of people are doing it and in dramatically increasing numbers.

Well, the good news is we don’t have to wonder about strong, reliable answers to those questions. An absolute wealth of social science research by leading sociologists and demographers of the family are telling us much about the consequences of living together before marriage. Here are some of the most startling findings:

  • If couples want to dramatically boost their likelihood of divorcing once married, few things so widely practiced will ensure that than cohabiting. This is just the opposite of what most believe.
  • If women want to significantly increase their chances of being a victim of physical, sexual and verbal violence from their mate, cohabitation is what they are looking for. Men with rings on their fingers are dramatically less likely to be abusers of any sort.
  • If you want to learn poorer problem-solving, communication and negotiation skills in your relationship, cohabitation can help you there also. This is because the lowered sense of commitment and relational clarity causes live-in couples to practice and learn fewer healthy interactions.
  • If poverty appeals to you, cohabitation is more likely to put you there, compared to being married, even when both of you work full time. Marriage is a wealth building institution. Cohabitors are three times more likely to be in poverty compared to the married.
  • When it comes to keeping up the house, cohabiting men help out less with household chores than their married peers. Husbands pitch in up to eight hours a week more than their unwedded bros on things like toilet cleaning, vacuuming and mopping. And married guys complain less often about lending a hand with the cleaning.
  • Sophisticated research shows that men who cohabit before marriage become husbands who tend to be less committed to their wives, compared to husbands who did not cohabit. Cohabiting did not have this commitment-reducing impact on women. This means that women who cohabit are the greater losers in the deal, being more likely to be committed to men who do not return the favor.
  • In terms of getting out of a bad relationship, data shows that women might actually have a more difficult time leaving unhealthy cohabiting relationships than a dangerous marriage. This is because the woman tends to have less power, freedom and influence in a cohabiting relationship than in marriage. As a live-in girlfriend, her negotiating position in the relationship is weaker than a wife’s position is.

Nearly all of us know someone who is cohabiting. Talking to them about the consequences is not being a moralizing busybody. It’s showing deep concern and care for them because of what science reveals cohabitation does to our chances for strong, healthy, thriving long-term marriages.

It is unloving not to bring these truths to their attention. And that is why I wrote this book — to help people know what is more likely to help them achieve their deeply held relational goals — and what is not.

About the Author

Glenn Stanton

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the country. Glenn is the author of four books and a contributor to nine others. He’s a huge Bob Dylan fan, loves quirky movies, and picked out and bought the first piece of clothing for himself when he was 28. Glenn and his wife, Jacqueline, have five children and live in Colorado Springs, Colo.