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Marriage, cohabitation do have some similarities, according to surveys

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

Q: How do marriage and cohabitation compare?

A: Author Janice Show Crouse wrote an article elucidating the significant differences between marriage and cohabitation. Marriage is a formal, publicly recognized commitment, with legal status, obligations, privileges and responsibilities. Marriage is a bond of complete sharing and a commitment of faithfulness. It is a union of interdependency between two people in an exclusive relationship.

Cohabitation, on the other hand, is informal, private and undefined, differing from one couple to another. It is a limited commitment without legal or binding obligations. Cohabitation can be conditional with partial sharing. The relationship usually is two independent individuals living together who might have long-term or permanent commitments.

An article from the Center for Law and Social Policy published a treatise on cohabitation in 2008. The general characteristics of cohabitors outlined were similar to other research sources. Cohabitors were less educated than married couples and were less likely to be high school graduates. Cohabitors were more likely to have come from families with marital instability. Children of mothers who married young and were pregnant when they married were more likely as adults to cohabitate.

Cohabitors were more likely to have been married before cohabitation. In 1992, in two-thirds of cohabitating couples, one of the parties was divorced. One of the accepted reasons for the increasing popularity of cohabitation is the perception ending cohabitation is much less complicated than divorce.

The percentage of cohabitation relationships that is long-term is 10 percent. Marriages that last are much greater in number. Approximately 50 percent of cohabitating relationships last two years. The other half either dissolve or marry. The employment of the male cohabitor affects the duration of the cohabitation. Full-time employment of men cohabiting reduces the chances of separation in the unions by 40 percent.

Continuing with data from the Center for Law and Policy, cohabitors reported more frequent interpersonal involvement with their partners than married couples reported. However, cohabitors reported more disagreements, lower levels of fairness and less happiness compared with married couples.

Both cohabitors and married couples reported the same degrees of satisfaction relative to childcare and household labor. However, cohabitating partners did not all contribute equally to paying for household necessities.

Approximately 10 percent of cohabitors had children during the years of cohabitation. Approximately 25 percent brought children from previous unions into current cohabiting relationships. Children living in cohabiting households were more apt to be poor than children in married households.

Cohabitors who planned to marry were quite similar to married partners. Individuals with higher incomes who cohabited were more likely to marry. Those cohabitors who previously were married were less likely to remarry than the never-married cohabitors were likely to marry.

There was a negative correlation between length of cohabitation and likelihood of marriage. The probability of marriage for cohabitors positively was affected by men's education levels, economic status and full-time employment. These men also had lower odds of ending cohabitation relationships. The higher the annual income for men, the greater the likelihood of marrying. On the other hand, the economic status of women appeared to have no effect on transitions from cohabitation.

Persons who chose to cohabit were less committed to marriage and more likely to accept divorce. These factors might account for other comparisons between cohabitors and married couples. For example, in marriages in which one spouse cohabited in the past, there was a 50 percent more likelihood of divorce.

In the Journal of Marriage and Family, 1996, Susan L. Brown and Alan Booth from Pennsylvania State University researched Cohabitation versus Marriage: A Comparison of Relationship Quality. The data was from the 1987 to 1988 National Survey of Families and Households. They found the quality of cohabiting relationships in those who planned to marry was not significantly different from those who married. The sources of stress for both cohabitors and married spouses were the same. These included biological children, stepchildren from past unions and the prior relationship experiences of those involved.

A study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro also used data from the 2002 National Survey of Families and Households to compare married spouses and cohabitors. This study found men's hours spent in household chores no different for cohabitation or marriage. However, women's hours of household chores were significantly higher for married women than for cohabiting women.

* Next week's article continues discussing comparisons between 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.