Last updated: July 11, 2019
Topic: FamilyChildren
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The Drawbacks of Cohabitation and Subsequent Prospects for Marriage

This paper comprises in-depth research into the incidence, precipitating factors and drawbacks that characterize cohabitation.  In particular, we examine the hypothesis that cohabitation ever leads to marriage and explain why it does not in all too many instances.  In doing so, I derive an analysis of the negative aspects of open-ended, uncommitted unions.

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The research is both primary (measurable trends cited by authoritative sources) and secondary in that the paper quotes conclusions of experts in the field.  One conceptual “limitation “ of this paper is the focus on traditional couples, a man and a woman, because fertility and childrearing are matters that either bind informal unions ever more solidly or disrupt them and wreck all aspirations of proceeding to marriage.  As well, heterosexual cohabitation has an undue impact on marriage-minded women whereas the law does not sanction homosexual marriage.

Cohabitation rates have skyrocketed, helped along by ever more permissive attitudes, the compelling notion that it will lead to marriage sooner or later, by economic considerations, and by the caution of a generation traumatized by divorce and separation.

Cohabitation, the interval between dating and legitimate marital union, first became a noticeable phenomenon in America around the late 1960s and early 1970s (Heaton & Forste, 2007).  This was a time of great liberal movements, Woodstock, the “baby boomers” proclaiming “free love” was acceptable, of widespread usage of marijuana and hallucinogenic “hard” drugs, and believing that Communism was chic.

Even then, cohabitating young couples numbered perhaps just half a million or a tiny  0.8 percent of the 62.8 million households in the United States.  Society largely turned its collective noses up at the artists and other questionable types who “lived in sin” (Wartik, 2005).  Today, there are nearly ten times as many mainstream (male-female) couples living together without benefit of either legal protection or church rites.  Cohabiting couples comprise fully half of all households and half of those who do marry in any given year have lived together beforehand.

“It’s not this bad little thing only a few people are doing,” says University of Michigan sociologist Pamela Smock. “It’s not going away. It’s going to become part of our normal, typical life course — it already is for younger people. They think it would be idiotic not to live with someone before marriage. They don’t want to end up the way their parents or older relatives did, which is divorced.” (Wartik, op. cit.)

The incidence may vary but cohabitation is an international phenomenon.  Cohabitation is a long-established tradition is many Latin American societies (Heaton ; Forste, 2007; quoting Castro Martin, 2002).  In the Philippines, by contrast, attitudes among older teenagers and young adults are comparatively conservative.  Having less at stake, men were more predisposed toward cohabitation.  In general, Filipino males and females were more likely to have cohabited if their attitudes were liberal, as opposed to the mainstream Catholic view. (Williams, Kabamalan ; Ogena, 2007)

The benefits and drawbacks of informal unions do not concern just the man and woman either.  Soon after commencing, babies are born; in many cases, a pregnancy is even the precipitating factor for living together.  One in three babies born in America today have unmarried parents, a proportion six times higher than the 5 percent reported in 1960.  Two in five cohabiting households today have children, a cohort 3.5 million strong that must learn early in life why their parents bear different surnames (England ; Edin, 2007; Wartik, op. cit.).

The openness toward cohabitation may be an attitude exclusive to young adults, notably those who have already experienced intimacy, and the middle-aged.  A landmark investigation of adolescent expectations about future unions (Manning, Longmore, ; Giordano, 2007; based on an analysis of the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study) revealed that teenagers were much more certain about marriage in the future and rarely contemplated cohabitation as a replacement for, or transition toward, marriage.

Being economically disadvantaged both explains why young couples have children out of wedlock and why they postpone marriage in the first place.  Very often, this mixed state of present/delayed gratification is motivated by an idealized conception of what a wedding should be like or what a young couple should be able to afford from Day 1 of their marriage.  Corollary to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, a retrospective study of relationship histories among economically disadvantaged women who had given birth out of wedlock in late adolescence or early youth suggested this was “adversely associated with the ability to marry economically attractive men and maintain long-term marital unions.” (Graefe ; Lichter, 2007).

Societal pressures do impinge upon cohabiting couples.  Consequently, there is significant rationalization at work.  The England and Edin study (op cit.) revealed household income barely above the poverty line for a family of four ($22,500) and elicited such assertions as wanting to marry when they earn enough to stop asking government, parents, relatives or friends for handout’s.  And yet, they went ahead anyway, bore the expenses of living together and raising children.  While finding that sheer lack of education rendered the career prospects for such couples decidedly bleak, the researchers took at face value the claims about living together and not having even a rented domicile to call their own.

I have alluded to the finding that half of today’s marriages merely legitimize or solemnize a cohabiting union.  On turning the question around – what are the chances that cohabitation will end in marriage? – the available information provides a rather dismal answer.

Wartik (op. cit.), for instance, cites a review of recent research that found couples who had cohabited before marriage were twice more likely to divorce than those who had made the commitment to marry first before living together.

Cohabitation also appears to worsen the quality of subsequent married life.  Interviews with such couples point to poorer communication, more fights and arguments, distinctly worse commitment to, and satisfaction with, the relationship.

Some of these adverse consequences are explained by the “inertia hypothesis,” that many couples make a rather lackadaisical decision to marry.  Men, in particular, start out wanting the greater intimacy more frequently with no hard commitment in mind; months or years later, the couple confronts a certain comfort level, joint investments, children (unplanned pregnancies are more common among cohabitants than couples who date but do not live together) and pressure from friends and family to solemnize the union.

Penn State University sociologist Paul Amato is one of those credited with the inertia theory.  In a recent interview, he emphasized how emotionally perilous consequences result from contrasting motivations for cohabiting: “People are much fussier about whom they marry than whom they cohabitate with.  A lot of people cohabit because it seems like a good idea to share expenses and have some security and companionship, without a lot of commitment.” (Wartik, op. cit.)  The crux of future dissatisfaction and conflict arises because many women agree to live together with their minds already made up that the man is marriageable material.

Nor is such impermanence unique to America.  Reviewing Norwegian survey data covering relationship histories, Poortman, ; Lyngstad (2007) found that, as long as selectivity (being discriminating in partner choice) was accounted for, repeated cohabitation breakup’s are the rule.  Perversely enough, one who cohabits, breaks up and then marries another does somewhat better at maintaining the relationship than do couples on their first marriage and without any prior cohabitation experience.

Temporary financial hardship may indeed motivate many couples to seek cohabitation as a transition to marriage but successfully meeting this life challenge greatly improved the prospects of a legitimized union.  When, as exemplified by the England and Edin longitudnal research (op. cit.), a couple was assiduous enough or fortunate not to need handout’s after four years (the bar set in the study), eight in ten went on to marry.  In contrast, just 19 percent of those who could not uplift their economic status in four years’ time went on to marry.

Psychologists and sociologists offer alternative explanations for the poor marriage prospects of those who cohabit.  The first, “selection perspective”, focuses on the disadvantages that impelled them to cohabit in the first place: economic, poor education, divorced parents.  In turn, the “experience of cohabitation perspective,” opines that cohabitation itself changes people in ways that undermine later marital quality and commitment.  The absence of commitment, a very compelling reason for cohabitation in the first place may well be the reason numerous studies have linked “early cohabitation to heightened marital problems and lower satisfaction with marriage, [and ultimately] to divorce…” (Fergus, op. cit.)

A.    Relationship Stability
Concluding their inter-country comparison, Heaton ; Forste (2007) discovered that there were no essential differences between the U.S.A. and Mexico (and by extension, an industrialized, largely liberal, Protestant, and highly-educated population versus newly-industrializing, Catholic, Latin and largely poor Mexico) in point of cohabitation success.  “Informal sexual unions” were just as unstable compared to marriages in either country.

From the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study carried out in 20 large MSA’s, England ; Edin (op. cit.) discovered misplaced optimism among couples who had already had a baby.  Four in five were romantically involved at the time the baby was born.  Of those in a relationship, three-fourths of the cohabiting females and an even greater proportion of their boy friends expressed the belief that there was a “good” or “almost certain” chance they would eventually marry.  Five years later, however, half the couples had broken up and only one-fourth married.

B.     Emotional and Psychological
The economic motive for going with a cohabitation arrangement aside, couples breakup for emotional reasons.  Women almost always initiate the breakup and men move out.  Across income strata, middle- and lower-income women now agree that they were most dissatisfied with the companionship and level of attention received from their mates.  Rather than spend “quality time with them, women complain, the men seem to prefer hanging out in public with friends or relations.  As well, females complain bitterly about relentless arguing, verbal and physical abuse, plain lack of love, and substance abuse as primary reasons for their break ups. (England ; Edin, op cit.)

Beyond emotional succor and caring, infidelity is at least as damaging to the stability of the relationship because it is so tangible and wounds the affected partner grievously.  Like women in other relationship types, females who agree to cohabit expect sexual exclusivity and the men even more so.  And yet, close to two-thirds of cohabitation relationships suffered at least one instance of infidelity, higher than the incidence among married couples.  Most such instances were committed by men though some women also saw fit to play around.  In the end, it was a rare cohabiting relationship that survived repeated infidelity.

C.    Commitment Phobia
Men, one discerns from a review of the applicable studies, lay the groundwork for future problems in cohabiting relationships when they enter these casually, with little or no commitment in mind.  And they are liable to keep their reluctance to themselves, a patently unfair gulf vis-à-vis females’ readiness for long-term commitment.

For instance, Rhoades, Stanley ; Markman (2006) carried out a longitudinal study analyzing the dedication or interpersonal commitment levels of couples against their relationship histories.  Nor surprising, men who waited to get engaged or married before living together demonstrated greater commitment from the very beginning than did men who agreed to cohabit for being engaged.  Moreover, “pure cohabiting” men failed to match the feelings and commitment of their girl friends.  And most damaging of all, such “asymmetries” were apparent throughout the period of cohabitation and persisted during the early years of marriage, suggesting that marriage fails to reverse the lack of commitment.

D.    Sharing the Financial Burden and Upkeep
Women with high earnings are more like to choose cohabitation rather than marriage in the U.S.  The former provide women greater freedom in part because they are not tied to traditional role expectations (Clarkberg et al., 1995; quoted in Heaton ; Forste, 2007).  Since such equality is hard to maintain, the presumption leads to a high dissolution rate among well-off cohabiting couples. (Brines ; Joyner, 1999; quoted in Heaton ; Forste, 2007).

Among low-income couples, financial issues naturally enough emerged among the top four sources of conflict. (England ; Edin, op. cit.)

E.     Child-Rearing Issues
The England ; Edin report highlighted disagreements about disciplining children among the four more prevalent commitment breakers for lower-income couples.

More than ever, American couples are willing to explore cohabitation relationships.  Such families, given that they inevitably produce offspring, currently account for half or better of all households in the United States.  Economic disadvantages are often cited as the primary reason why couples do not get married right away.  Whether these are poor inner-city couples trying to make the best of an “unplanned” pregnancy or professionals and even seniors thinking to cut costs or move into the partner’s more conveniently-located housing, the high hopes of eventually ending up married are frequently dashed by the reality of differing expectations and assumptions, emotional neglect, outright violence, and personal vices.

This concededly brief review of the literature suggests that cohabiting relationships are strengthened by a combination of economic, counseling and relationship skills training.  Left to her own devices, the archetypal inner-city single mother abandoned by her boy friend almost never manages to attract and hold an economically better-off male.  On the other hand, couples who do strive together to better their economic circumstances are the one exception to the dismal outlook: four in five eventually marry.

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