Is Cohabitation Bad for You? Answers from a 6-Year Study

Cohabitors differ from married people, but how?

Posted Jan 15, 2012

When I was growing up, there was a handy way of referring to cohabitation among those who disapproved - it was called "living in sin." Relatives and social commentators tend to be a bit less overtly judgmental these days. After all, cohabitation is very popular.

Still, prominent marriage advocates like to insist that only formal, official marriage will do. In The Case for Marriage, for instance, authors Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher concede that couples feel more independence when they are cohabiting than when they are married, but admonish that:

"...the price of this freedom can be high. For by consciously withholding permanent commitment, cohabitors do not reap the advantages of a deeper partnership...cohabitors generally do not reap the profound physical-health benefits that married couples get... (p. 45)."

In Singled Out, I took apart Waite and Gallagher's claims, sometimes line by line. I consulted the references that supposedly supported their case. I found that their stark matrimaniacal statements (for instance, that marriage brings "profound physical-health benefits") are often grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. So I would not be surprised if their schoolmarmish take on cohabitation is also overly whiny, relative to the actual scientific data.

The 6-year study I've been describing recently provided some terrific tests of the supposed benefits to health and well-being of getting partnered (compared to staying single). It also provided some of the first data on changes over time in how couples allot their time to friends and family. Now I want to tell you about another important set of findings from the study, about cohabitation and how it compares to marriage.

I described the details of the study in a previous post. The key points are that a national sample of more than 2700 American adults was surveyed once in 1987 or 1988, when they were all single and not cohabiting, and then again 6 years later. At the 6-year mark, some had stayed single, others were cohabiting, still others had married, and a final group had first cohabited and then married.

The authors examined three comparisons:

  • People who went directly from being single to getting married without first cohabiting, vs. those who cohabited and then married. (So these tests compare two groups of people who ended up married, only one of which cohabited first.)
  • People who went directly from single to married, vs. those who are cohabiting.
  • People who are cohabiting, vs. those who got married after first cohabiting.

There were 7 aspects of the participants' lives that were assessed:

  • Happiness
  • Depression
  • Health
  • Self-esteem
  • Quality of their relationship with their parents
  • Contact with their parents
  • Time they spent with their friends

One more thing. As I explained in my previous post, the authors did something that should be standard practice in this field of study but is actually rare. They acknowledged that not all couples stay together. That means that all of the comparisons I already described were tested two ways:

  • In analyses in which everyone who got coupled was included, regardless of whether they had split up from a previous cohabitation or marriage
  • In analyses only including the people who got partnered (cohabitation or marriage) and stayed that way.

Now, finally, the results:

  • Comparing those who got married without cohabiting to those who married after cohabiting, there are no differences whatsoever. None of the 7 aspects were different for the two groups, no matter who was or was not included in the analyses. If you end up married, it doesn't matter if you proceeded directly to marriage or if you cohabited first.
  • There are no differences in the quality of adult children's relationships with their parents for any of the three comparisons (direct marriage vs. cohabitation then marriage; direct marriage vs. currently cohabiting; currently cohabiting vs. cohabitation then marriage). There are also no differences in contact with parents.
  • In analyses including all couples, people who cohabited and then got married spend less time with their friends than those who are cohabiting.
  • There is only one way that married people ever do better than cohabitors: they rate themselves as healthier.
  • Cohabitors have higher self-esteem than married people. That's true whether all couples are included in the analyses or only those who got coupled and stayed that way.
  • When just the couples who stayed together during the six years are included in the analyses, cohabitors are happier than married people. When everyone who got coupled is included, even if they broke up, then the cohabitors and married people do not differ in happiness.

We already know what the Marriage Mafia thinks of that one way in which married people do better than cohabitors. Waite and Gallagher declared, "Because they do not feel responsible for each other's well-being, cohabitors do not seem to regulate each other's behaviors in the same way spouses do (p. 45)," so they don't get the (supposed) health benefits that married people do.

Happily, the authors of the 6-year study favor a different explanation, one that is all too rarely acknowledged except by those who look at research from a singles perspective:

"...the package of entitlements that go with [marriage] - including health insurance for spouses - may better explain the health of the married" (p. 13).

What do the authors have to say about the greater self-esteem and sometimes greater happiness of cohabitors over married people?

Those results fit with "findings on the diminished sense of autonomy and personal growth in marriage, and may relate to the relative flexibility of cohabitation."

People in the pro-marriage movement like to say that there is something special about official marriage - it increases commitment; it makes the union "real." I think there is something special about official marriage, too - it comes with a boatload of federal benefits and protections, withheld from singles and cohabiting couples. That's singlism. If the marriage advocates cared about the health of all people, and not just married people, they would advocate for greater and more affordable access to good health care for all. Same for the politicians.

In an earlier post, I described the results of this same study showing that the people who got partnered (by cohabiting or getting married) spent less time with their friends and had less contact with their parents than did the people who stayed single. The results I just reviewed in this post suggest that it is the transition to marriage that matters most. Those who cohabit and then marry spend even less time with friends than those who are cohabiting.

[Photo credit: visual photos]


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