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Cohabitation – “The New Marriage”

Times have changed. Fifty years seeing couples living together without being married was fairly uncommon. Only about 0.2% of 25-to 34-year olds shared their home in 1968. Today, this number has increased to 15%. In contrast, marriage rates have decreased from 59% in 1978 to only 30% today for the same age group (25 to 34 year olds). In what camp are you? Do you believe that cohabitation is necessary in order to “give the relationship a try”? Have you boldly declared that it would be impossible for you to get married without “testing the waters” first? There sure seems to be a lot of popular wisdom behind cohabitation. But what does research have to say? How does cohabitation impact your relationships and how does it affect child well-being? If you are unsure about whether you’d rather just live together or tie the knot first, or if you are already cohabiting but are curious to learn more, this post is for you. 

Cohabitation and relationships

The National Marriage Project and The Wheatley Institution released a report in February 2019 that assesses the link between cohabitation and relationship stability, commitment and satisfaction. Their findings may sound gloomy, but knowledge is essential when evaluating and making important decisions about your life. At Lifeline we strive to help you have fact-based information to make the best decisions for your life.

  • According to the report, living together without being married puts your relationship at a higher risk of temporary and definitive break-ups. Cohabiting couples are overall 26% less stable than married. And if they decide to marry, they also have an increased likelihood of divorcing. Some experts, including researcher Scott Stanley, attribute this fact to what they call “relationship inertia”. Simply put, cohabitation might make you  marry someone you would not have chosen otherwise. The culprit? The shared responsibilities and the convenience of the cohabiting situation make it harder to leave. 
  • As for relationship commitment, cohabiting couples are 15% less likely to be committed to each other. Therefore their risk of experiencing sexual infidelity is higher than married people.
  • Finally, the general satisfaction of cohabiting couples is also lower by 12% than those of married people.  And what about marriage, you might ask? Contrary to popular belief, 70 to 80% of marriages are actually happy.

So does this mean that cohabitation dooms your relationship from the very beginning?

Not necessarily, as each relationship is different. In addition, Scott Stanley has made the observation that cohabiting couples can have the same outcomes as married ones if they:

  • Have only ever cohabited with the person they marry;
  • Set up a clear and mutual plan to marry before they move in together;
  • Don’t cohabit before the age of 23.

Cohabitation and child well-being

So what about children? Today, about one-quarter of them are born to cohabiting parents, compared to only 6% in the 1980s. Some argued that the decision to have a baby together creates a comparable, if not stronger and longer-lasting bond than marriage. If you are one of these parents, you might want to know if your children will fare the same as those born to married couples…

The answer is not straightforward, as children’s well-being is also dependent on other factors. For example, adolescents are more resilient than younger children and boys were found to need more stability growing up than girls. Overall though, experts widely recognize that the well-being of children living with cohabiting parents is lower than those of married parents.

What research has found:

  • Higher risk of poverty and child abuse: Finally, it is important to note that children whose parents are not married are more likely to live in poverty and experience physical or psychological child-abuse. This may not apply to you at all since this fact seems to depend a lot on the family background prior to moving in together, and not so much on the type of union chosen (marriage or cohabitation). However, it is something that remains true and is important to keep in mind.

Would you like to discuss your own family situation with a counselor? Are you facing an unplanned pregnancy and unsure what to do? At Lifeline Pregnancy Help Clinic, we provide confidential and no-cost services including counseling, pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, education and more. Visit our website for more information. We are here to help.