Sharon Sassler, Ph.D., and Amanda Miller, Ph.D.

Cohabitation Nation

The Challenges Facing Cohabitors During COVID-19

Their challenges differ from those facing marrieds.

Posted May 13, 2020

Much has been written about the challenges couples face as they adjust to “shelter in place” policies triggered by the coronavirus. A headline in The Atlantic terms the pandemic “a disaster for feminism.” Once dual-earner couples can no longer outsource their childcare, the author fears, many wives will fall back into the roles of 1950s and never find their way back into the workforce. More upbeat articles offer useful advice for couples that suddenly find themselves working from home on opposite sides of the dining room table. But most of the authors ignore the fact that many young couples facing this challenge today are not married. Among couples aged 18-24, for example, 9% live with an unmarried partner, compared to just 7% who are married. The ratio of married to cohabiting couples grows with age, but still, there are more than 18 million cohabiting couples in America and half are under age 35.

The challenges facing cohabiting couples are often quite different from those of their married counterparts. For one thing, cohabitors tend to be less educated and to earn lower incomes. Among cohabiting couples in 2017, for example, nearly 53% earned $30,000 per year or less. And many cohabitors are parents; an estimated 5.8 million American children were living in cohabiting households in 2018. Almost twice as many cohabiting parents as married ones (46 percent vs. 26 percent) are low-income, earning 150% or less of the supplemental poverty measure.

Cohabitors, then, have all of the hallmarks of those most likely to be impacted economically. It is these young, lower-income workers who are most likely to have lost their jobs in the most recent spate of layoffs. Those who are not among the more than 26 million people who recently lost their jobs are especially likely to be working in the low-wage positions that government officials have deemed essential – but not, evidently, essential enough to provide a living wage or the benefits of health care and paid leaves. The stress of having no safety net or facing the prospect of catching the virus at work is a different order of severity than the need to figure out who will keep the children quiet if both partners need to teleconference at the same time.                                                                                                   

In a surprisingly large number of cases, cohabitors may have to “shelter in place” with a partner they did not want to live with even before disaster struck. Less-educated and lower-income couples tend to move in together much more rapidly than their more-educated counterparts, often to save money on housing. This increases the chance that the relationship will not work out, but it also creates cost barriers to separating. Long before the stresses associated with this pandemic, about one in five cohabiting couples that we interviewed said their relationship had deteriorated since moving in together, with many preferring to live apart but not able to afford to. How will those cohabitors who, in the words of one man, “hate the sound of her voice” or worse, those in high conflict unions, manage to weather the next few months with no real way to escape even as reports of domestic violence have surged, with calls to some hotlines up 35% in April as compared to March?

Tumisu/Pixabay
A couple appear not to be speaking to one another
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

At the other extreme, some cohabitors may intensify their relationships more quickly than they would have otherwise. The need for stability, health insurance, emotional support, and income pooling may encourage cohabitors to marry even if they have not reached a point when one or both actually feels ready to do so. Marriages (as well as cohabitations) that are hurried along by such outside forces tend to have higher rates of conflict and are more likely to end in divorce.

Of course, adversity can sometimes make a relationship stronger, and it turns out that cohabiting couples have one potential advantage here. The demands of sheltering in place with both or one working from home will require many couples to renegotiate their traditional tasks and roles in the household. This may be easier for cohabitors because they already share housework more equally than do their married counterparts and because they are less “locked in” to conventional notions of gender. Other research we have conducted with our colleague Dan Carlson reveals that equality in housework is now an important source of solidarity and satisfaction for couples, while the lack of such sharing is an increasingly powerful source of conflict.

Still, we cannot expect even the most egalitarian couples to weather this crisis alone. To protect the country's most vulnerable couples, additional interventions are needed. Low-income and working-class cohabiting individuals need financial help now, not in the 20 weeks Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggests it may take. Since cohabitors are more likely to lack a bank account than their married counterparts, they are especially likely to experience a delay in receiving stimulus checks. Cohabitors also need access to quality, affordable health care so that they do not find themselves yoked to an unsuitable partner just to access the medical care they need in the midst of a pandemic. President Trump’s decision not to reopen the Affordable Healthcare Act marketplace for a special enrollment period could be especially disadvantageous to cohabitors. Finally, for those who find themselves in the most dangerous positions, additional immediate funding for domestic violence organizations so that safe additional shelters can be set up is required.

Crises can encourage people to unite and pull together. But individuals and couples need backup. Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families, points out that “for the sake of our fellow Americans, we are asking millions of couples to do without the interactions with friends and family members that are a critical source of support and well-being. The least we can do is make sure we don’t stint on the social and economic supports that government can provide.”

Cross-posted with permission from the Council on Contemporary Families Blog @ The Society Pages.