Marriage wiser choice than cohabitation

Living together unwed riskier for relationship

June 27, 2011 

  • At issue | June 6 Herald-Leader article, "Married couples no longer a majority in Ky; census shows state part of national trend"

More and more couples are choosing to cohabit instead of taking public marriage vows.

From 1960 to 2000, the number of unmarried couples living together increased tenfold. In 2002, among women age 18-19, cohabitation was more common than marriage, with 11 percent of these women cohabiting and 5 percent married.

Similar patterns in current marriage and cohabitation with respect to age were found among men.

The 2010 census indicates a continuing drop in the number of married-couple households. In Kentucky, husband-wife couples make up 49.3 percent of the total households, down from 53.9 percent in 2000. Most of this decrease in the number of households without a married couple can be attributed to the increase among couples who cohabit without a legal marriage.

For some of these couples, living together might be considered the equivalent of common-law marriage. However, only the District of Columbia and 10 states — Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas — recognize common-law marriage as legal.

The other 40 states provide absolutely no legal protection for cohabitation.

Although some experts attempt to put a positive spin on the increase in cohabitation by thinking of it as a good way to "test-drive" a relationship before making a commitment, the facts indicate otherwise. Marriage is difficult, but contrary to popular misconception, living together without marriage does not improve the chances for the success of the relationship.

Various studies have shown that cohabitors:

■ Are less committed to the institution of marriage and more accepting of divorce. By year five of their relationship, 50 percent of cohabitors break up, compared with only 15 percent of those who are married.

■ Demonstrate less sexual exclusivity during marriage. Women who cohabited are 3.3 times more likely to have a secondary sex partner after marriage than non-cohabitors.

■ Tend to perceive themselves or the relationship as a poor risk for long-term happiness. Many cohabitors have problematic relationships characterized by mutual mistrust and insecurity. This may be why they need to test through cohabitation their ability to make a stable relationship. If they get married, they carry these doubts and insecurities into marriage.

■ Tend to hold individualism as more important. They value independence and economic equality in a relationship while married persons value interdependence and the exchange of resources.

■ Sometimes marry because of pressure from family and friends or pressure to provide a stable home for children.

■ Report lower satisfaction with marriage after they marry. Cohabiting couples may go into marriage with unrealistic expectations or with the faulty assumption that they had worked through all future problems during cohabitation.

■ Are less religious, more independent, more liberal and more risk-oriented than non-cohabitors. These qualities may be related to having less commitment, fewer boundaries and a limited readiness to work at marriage.

■ Have more problems in their relationship, after marriage, concerning money.

■ Are less likely to stay married. The likelihood that a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by 6 percentage points if the couple had cohabited first. Their chances do improve if they were already engaged when they began living together.

■ Are more likely to have domestic violence issues and are likely to carry this pattern into marriage.

■ Are not as good at conflict resolution as those who do not cohabit.

We may compare a sexual relationship to a fire. In order for a house to be safely heated, the fire requires a structure like a fireplace or a furnace to contain the heat. Couple relationships are also hot. They generate intense heat. For a relationship to survive and prosper, it requires a stable structure, marriage, to contain the heat that the relationship engenders.

When we look at all these facts, we conclude that cohabitation is a poor substitute for marriage. Although cohabiting does not destroy marriage, it tends to drive down its true value.

Couples who are serious about their relationships and who care about the children to whom they may give birth, will not consider living together before they have cemented their relationship with marriage vows.

James Robert "Bob" Ross of Lexington is a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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