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Living together less of a transition than a substitution

This is the eighth article in a series of articles about understanding cohabitation and its relationship to marriage and divorce.

Q: How else can cohabitation and marriage be understood and compared?

A: A study from the Ohio State University Department of Sociology examined cohabitation historically by also using comparative data from the National Survey of Families and Households. The first group was from the 1980s, and the second group from the 1990s. Subjects were between 18 and 34 years old. The researchers found there was no significant difference in stability between the two groups, but the 1990s group was less likely to transition into marriage. The results suggested cohabitation in more recent years is less of a transition into marriage. It is more of an alternative to marriage for cohabiters.

Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a team of researchers from several universities examined the impact of engagement and premarital intentions on cohabitation. The sample was drawn from multiple states in the 1990s. For first marriages, cohabitation with no engagement or commitment was correlated with more self-reported proneness for divorce and a greater probability of divorce compared to cohabiting after engagement. For second marriages, there was a general risk of less marital quality when there was cohabitation before a second marriage.

In Psychology Today, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's article, "The Case for Marriage," points out couples feel more independent in cohabitation. Bella De Paulo of the University of California Santa Barbara, critiqued their research. She came to several conclusions. With the qualities Waite and Gallagher compared, there were no differences for those who married without cohabiting from those who cohabited before marriage. The aspects measured were depression, happiness, health, self-esteem, quality of the relationship with parents and time spent with friends.

However, the couples who were married did rate their health higher. Those people who were married spent less time with their friends than couples cohabiting. Cohabiters had higher self-esteem. Cohabiters reported more autonomy and personal growth.

A group of researchers from Brigham Young University compared cohabitation, marriage and remarriage. They also used data from the National Survey of Families and Households from two periods: 1987 to 1988 and 1992 to 1993. The team examined happiness, communication, fairness and disagreements. There were six categories of couples:

* Married with no cohabitation

* Married with cohabitation

* Remarried with no cohabitation

* Remarried with cohabitation

* Cohabiting in 1987-1988 and in 1992-1993 continuously

* Cohabiting in 1987-1988 and married by 1992-1993.

Results found long-term cohabiting couples were lower than the other five categories in happiness. Continuous, cohabiting couples were the same as other couples in communication or disagreements. For marital quality, couples who cohabited and then married were the same as couples who married without cohabiting.

Married couples who did not cohabit were similar on all measures to remarried couples who did not cohabit. Remarried couples who cohabited were lower on happiness and fairness than married couples who had not cohabited. Overall, in all groups, women reported less happiness and less fairness than men.

This study suggested that in cohabitation as a stage of development in relationships there might not be a stigma if there is an expectation of marriage. Cohabiters reported lower levels of commitment and happiness than married couples.

Long-term cohabiters reported significantly lower scores for fairness than the other five categories. Compared to married or remarried couples, long-term cohabiters reported less fairness in pay for work, spending money and household chores.

The Urban Institute published a study on the welfare of children in marriage versus cohabitation. In 2004, Gregory Acs and Sandi Nelson analyzed data from the National Survey of American Families. They compared married parent families, married stepparent families, cohabiting parent families and cohabiting stepparent families.

On average, children living with married parents, either biological or adoptive, fared the best. The study found children in cohabiting households had more poverty, lower income status, food insecurity, more conflict with parents, and more parents with poor mental health. The researchers felt the children had different outcomes because the cohabiters were different from married couples. Cohabiting fathers were less likely to work or to have worked full-time, more likely to be high school dropouts, and to be younger than 25.

Cohabiting mothers were more likely to be younger than 25, high school dropouts, less likely to be currently working. Both cohabiting and married mothers were equally likely to have worked full-time in the previous year.

* Next week's article will compare marriage, cohabitation and divorce in Great Britain and Australia.

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.