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20-year-old survey shows similarities to today's cohabitation

Published on -6/17/2013, 7:42 AM

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This is the seventh in a series about understanding cohabitation and its relationship to marriage and divorce.

Q: What are further comparisons between cohabitation and marriage?

A: Led by researcher Dr. Kelly Musick from Cornell University, the Journal of Marriage and Family conducted a study comparing marriage and cohabitation. The sample consisted of 2,737 single women and men from the National Survey of Families and Households. In the sample, 896 married or moved in with partners during a six-year period. The surveys were administered in the late '80s or early '90s. Approximately 20 years have passed since the surveys were administered.

The survey found cohabitors and marital partners were fairly comparable in terms of self-esteem, psychological well-being and health. Findings actually suggested cohabitation might be better than marriage for some. The participants who cohabitated reported they were happier and had higher self-esteem than married couples. Researchers speculated cohabitors had more opportunities for independence and individual growth. Those in both cohabitation and marriage had more benefits than single people. There was less depression in partnerships than singlehood.

Marital partners reported better health than cohabitors. Researchers speculate health insurance for married couples might be the reason. Both cohabiting and married couples had less contact with families and friends than when they were single.

Gary Lee, professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, believes the study has value because it disputes the viewpoint marriage is the answer to problems in society. Marriage is not a panacea for everyone and might not be more beneficial than cohabitation or singlehood.

Musick believes cohabitation and marriage have become more similar in the 20 years since the research. However, marriage still has greater social status than cohabitation today.

A group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Columbia University published a study in 2004. Using data also from the National Surveys of Families and Households, the study focused on the happiness of men and women in cohabitation and marriage. Married and cohabiting females did not differ in happiness. But married men were more likely than cohabiting men to be happy. Existing literature is consistent with the results of the study, that marriage is more beneficial to men than to women.

A second finding from the above study was cohabitors were more likely than married couples to choose the moderate or middle category on a happiness scale. Both men and women who were married were more apt to choose either extreme happiness or extreme unhappiness. Moreover, married men were more likely to report extreme happiness than cohabiting men.

Data from the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey was analyzed by the Pew Research Center to compare the economic well-being for adults with college degrees in marriage and cohabitation. College-educated, two-income couples were more common among cohabitors than married partners. By working more, cohabitors offset the higher median incomes of married couples. In those without college degrees, there were slightly fewer cohabitors than married partners. Married adults without higher educations were more likely to work and thus achieve higher median incomes.

In college-educated households, there were more than twice as many married couples with children as there were cohabiting couples with children. Married adults also were more likely to have more children.

In couples without college degrees, the majority of both married and cohabiting households had children. Regardless of whether the household type was marriage or cohabitation, those households with children had significantly lower household incomes than those households without children.

The suppositions from this report by the researchers at Pew Research Center suggested cohabitation differs for college-educated versus noncollege-educated partners. For college-educated partners, cohabitation was an economic way to combine incomes and a step toward marriage and children. For adults with no college degrees, cohabitation was more likely to be a parallel arrangement to marriage complete with two incomes and children, but at a lesser economic level.

From 1987 to 2008, the number of couples cohabiting before marriage increased. Researchers Wendy Manning and Jessica Cohen examined recent marriages (since 1996) to find out the facts. They analyzed data from the 2006 to 2008 National Survey of Family Growth conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 2,003 men and women in the sample ages 15 to 44 who had married since 1996. The research examined the relationship between cohabitation and divorce.

Approximately 60 percent of the group of adults who cohabited planned to marry. In seven years following the marriages, the percentage of divorce was the same for those who had cohabited and those who had not. Approximately 20 percent were divorced from each group. Premarital cohabiting was not correlated with marital instability. Interestingly enough, for women with high risk factors for divorce, cohabiting in committed relationships was a positive step toward stable marriages. Risk factors for women included minority status, women with premarital births and women with no high school diplomas.

* Next week's article will continue comparing marriage and cohabitation.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.

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