Cohabitation is a romantic relationship between two people staying together. Compared to married people, cohabiters are not obligated to care for their partners economically and emotionally. Cohabitation is often a lifestyle that precedes marriage or remarriage. It does not operate within traditional legal or social norms that define marriage. One advantage of this union is that it does not require the social or legal recognition attributed to marriages because cohabitations have not been institutionalized. Thus, they are freer than marital relationships. They also come with many economic benefits and are less stressful during separations. However, the lack of commitment in these unions strains the relationship and increases the likelihood of separation.
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In recent years, cohabitation has rose significantly in the US as more couples choose to live together outside the institution of marriage. According to Cherlin (2004), it is estimated that over 9.7 million people of all age groups are involved in heterosexual cohabitation relationships in the US. Cohabitation appeals to many couples because it does not involve legal or social demands commonly associated with marital unions. In addition, marriage differs considerably from cohabitation with respect to relationship stability, sexual freedom, household roles, and divorce regulations indicating that cohabitation is a distinct form of union. Cohabitation has had a transformative impact on courtship and marriage. Partners in heterosexual cohabitations often end up marrying or remarrying each other after living together for a certain period.
Motivations for cohabitation differ from those for marriage. Unmarried couples cite economic reasons (sharing living expenses), financial independence, sexual satisfaction and freedom, and limited commitment as the reasons for choosing cohabitation over marriage (Cherlin, 2004). As such, cohabitation, compared to other unions, is more gender egalitarian. It also enriches courtship that precedes the marriage process. Cohabiters can learn more about each other when cohabiting than when living separately during dating. In this way, it serves as a ‘trial marriage’, allowing couples to test their compatibility before engaging in a legal union or marriage. It has also emerged as a medium for child rearing whereby divorced or separated parents with children cohabit as opposed to remarrying. While a bounty of research associate cohabitation with marital problems, living together has many benefits to the couple. This paper examines the advantages of cohabitation relationships over marriage or dating for cohabiters, their children, and the general society.
Arguments for Economic Benefits
Often, couples are motivated to cohabit because living together is less complicated and cheaper than staying apart. Young couples cohabit because marriage requires expensive formal ceremonies and expectations that they may not meet. Additionally, from a sociological perspective, the dissolution of cohabitation is much easier than a divorce or a separation after marriage because the union is less institutionalized compared to a marital relationship. As King and Scott (2005) put it, cohabitation is “a sexual and emotional relationship” that involves fewer obligations than a marital role (p. 282). Thus, cohabiting together entails fewer economic and legal obligations, which makes it economically beneficial compared to marrying each other.
Unmarried young couples often share an apartment and living expenses, which makes living together cheaper than staying apart. Older couples, either divorced or separated, also benefit from the economies of scale that come with living together. However, Cherlin (2004) observes that cohabiters show a lower propensity to pool their resources compared to people in a marital relationship. Nevertheless, cohabiting women can support their partners and their children through alimony or other similar payments. At the same time, the financial independence in post-divorce cohabitations means that either parent can keep his or her assets intact.
Another advantage of cohabitation is that it reduces family poverty for single parents. Manning and Lichter (1996) found that living together reduces poverty by up to 30 percent in single families, which benefits the children. The authors also establish that cohabiting parents often belong to the same income bracket and education level and are likely to remarry than single parents. Thus, stable cohabitations have economic benefits to young and old couples and their stepchildren.
Cohabitations often transition into marriages or dissolutions. Cunningham and Thornton (2005) note that cohabitations in the United States, which are often temporary, end in either dissolutions or marriages. A prolonged cohabitation often transitions into a marriage because “the experience and attitudes” gained enables the cohabiters to assess the “viability of a potential marriage partner” in a favorable way (Cunningham & Thornton, 2005, p. 711). Thus, cohabitations give couples a trial period that precedes the actual marriage.
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Research also shows that unmarried people in stable relationships hold positive attitudes towards cohabitation compared to married couples (Cunningham & Thornton, 2005). They consider cohabitation as a process for testing their compatibility before marrying each other. This stems from the fact that, in the past, cohabitation was socially acceptable because it always led to marriage. Even in contemporary times, most cohabitations transform into marriages. According to Cherlin (2004), in America, about 50 percent of cohabitations end in marriages. Cohabiters also report greater sexual satisfaction than their married counterparts do partly because cohabitations are built around sexuality (Manning & Lichter, 1996). In contrast, marriage is founded on commitment and fidelity, which, if not observed, can lead to a divorce.
Cohabitation also gives couples the freedom to define their relationship expectations and roles in their own way. Unlike marriage, which is an institutionalized union, cohabiters can define the terms of their relationship outside traditional gender norms. King and Scott (2005) observe that gender egalitarianism is more prevalent in cohabitations than in marital relationships. Thus, cohabitations favor gender equality and shared responsibilities, particularly those involving childless couples. In contrast, married women are forced to sacrifice their careers for housework and parenting. King and Scott (2005) also find that, among cohabiters, older couples are happier and more satisfied than young ones. In other words, divorced or separated parents are likely to enjoy stable cohabitations translating into marriages or remarriages compared to young couples.
While marriages are institutionalized unions, cohabitations are not. This means that the legal constraints that define marriage do not apply to cohabitations. Cohabitations are often unrecognized socially or legally and therefore, are not bound by societal norms. This gives cohabiters freedom to define the parameters of their relationship based on individual needs and expectations. Moreover, as already stated, equity is possible within cohabitations because both partners often yield equal power within the relationship. Cohabitations are characterized by low commitment levels between partners (Cherlin, 2004). This allows cohabiters to know each other before deciding to engage in a long-term commitment or marriage.
Unmarried people living together also have the liberty to terminate the relationship at any time. Although studies link cohabitation with unstable marital relationships due to lower commitment levels, cohabiters have freedom to leave the union without going through a legal process. This saves them the stress associated with property allocation or child maintenance during a divorce. For older couples, cohabitation enables them to keep their finances intact because it does not require them to pool their resources together as married people do.
Since marriages involve high levels of commitment, protracted legal battles during a divorce can have adverse impacts on the social and mental health of the couple and their children. Reinhold (2010) establishes that separation or divorce costs are lower in cohabitations compared to marriages. Married people undergo greater psychological and financial costs than cohabiters do during a separation. Cohabitation also allows couples to estimate their compatibility before marriage. As Reinhold (2010) puts it, “cohabiters have a more precise estimate of their match quality” before marriage (p. 719). Thus, cohabitation is more useful in the courtship process than dating.
Premarital cohabitations, despite their growing popularity, are associated with delayed marriage and increased divorce rates. This stems from the fact that they are founded on the premises of low commitment and sexual freedom (Cherlin, 2004). A study by Xu, Hudspeth, and Bartkowski (2006) found that cohabitation increases instability and lowers happiness in remarriages. In contrast, a marriage, which involves greater levels of commitment than cohabitating together, has long-term stability. For cohabiters, cohabitation is a temporary relationship whose permanency depends on individual commitment.
Cohabiters are also more likely to divorce or separate after marriage than couples who married without cohabiting are because of a shift in values and attitudes (Reinhold, 2010). The changing values make marriage between cohabiters less stable. According to Cherlin (2004), marital instability can also arise from “insecurity, the absence of pooled resources, and lack of fidelity” experienced during the cohabitation period (p. 853). In particular, the sexual freedom can extend beyond cohabitation putting the marital union at risk. This may result in dissolution of the marriage within a short time.
Among older couples, cohabitation is associated with delayed remarriages, but this depends on prior marital experiences (Xu, Hudspeth & Bartkowski, 2006). This implies that divorced people are more likely to prolong courtship than those who have never married. King and Scott (2005) also find higher intimate partner violence among cohabiters than among daters. The fact that cohabitations are not bound by any social or legal norms increases the risk of abuse in such relationships. Women suffer the brunt of the abuse common in cohabitations. Cohabitations also involve low levels of religiosity and relationship stability. Young cohabiters, because of the sexual freedom, transition easily from one relationship to another, which encourages infidelity. The unfaithfulness increases the likelihood of a separation.
Marital unions are often associated with high divorce rates, which increase single parenthood. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in premarital and post-divorce cohabitations, which many couples find convenient because they are free of legal or social pressures. Although cohabitations have some challenges, they are economically advantageous, are less costly during separations, and offer many satisfying relationship experience compared to marriages. Cohabiters do not need to hold expensive ceremonies to solemnize their union, as is the case with marital relationships. In addition, cohabitations allow couples to determine their compatibility before marriage. In the event of a divorce, the dissolution of the union is less complicated compared to a marital relationship. However, the low level of commitment among couples living together affects the relationship quality and stability.
Cherlin, A. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 848-861.
Cunningham, M. & Thornton, A. (2005). The Influence of Union Transitions on White Adults’ Attitudes toward Cohabitation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(3), 710-720.
King, V. & Scott, M.E. (2005). A comparison of cohabiting relationships among older and younger adults. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 271-285.
Manning, W. & Lichter, D. (1996). Parental cohabitation and children’s economic well- being. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 998-1010.
Reinhold, S. (2010). Reassessing the Link between Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Stability. Demography, 47(3), 719-733.
Xu, X., Hudspeth, C. & Bartkowski, J. (2006). The Role of Cohabitation in Remarriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(2), 261-274.
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