My interest is in people who are single, so do people who cohabit count? It depends on the definition of single. Legally, if you are not married, you are single. People who cohabit count as single. The legal definition matters because being legally, officially married means that you have access to more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections. Cohabiters do not get those.
Ordinarily, though, in everyday life, cohabiters are more like married people. They are socially coupled. People view them and treat them like couples, not like single people. They see themselves as coupled, too, not as single.
Cohabiting couples have come a long way since the days when they were described, unironically, as “living in sin.” Yet, their position is in some ways still unsettled. Some try to shame cohabiting couples by insisting that they have a problem with not wanting to commit, or warning that without that official marriage document in hand, they will never truly thrive the way married couples do. (By the way, those claims about marriage making people happier and healthier are just myths.)
As a social scientist, I want to know what carefully-conducted studies have to say about whether people who cohabit differ from those who marry. In one particularly sophisticated study (described in detail in this previous post) a national sample of more than 2700 American adults was surveyed at the beginning of the study, 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.
Ordinarily, I’m most interested in comparisons between those who stayed single and those who got married, but I already described those findings. Here I’ll focus on the difference between cohabiting and marrying. The study allows several ways of addressing that question:
- How do cohabiting couples compare to married couples who never lived together before marrying?
- How do cohabiting couples compare to married couples who cohabited before they married?
- Looking just at people who are currently married, does it matter if they cohabited first or went directly from being single (and not living together) to getting married?
The researchers also did something else important. In some of their analyses, they did the typical thing of looking only at those coupled or married people who were currently coupled or married. But they also conducted analyses of everyone who ever moved in together or got married, regardless of whether they stayed together. That’s important because we single people are so often told that we should get married. But if we do marry, or cohabit, that doesn’t mean we and our partners will stay together as a couple.
There were 7 aspects of the participants’ lives that were assessed:
- Quality of their relationship with their parents
- Contact with their parents
- Time they spent with their friends
The Key Findings
- Cohabiters 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, cohabiters are happier than married people. When everyone who got coupled is included, even if they broke up, then the cohabiters and married people do not differ in happiness. Taken together, the findings mean that no matter how you look at it, the married people are not any happier than the cohabiting couples. They are either doing about the same as the cohabiters, or it is the cohabiters who are happier.
- In analyses including all couples, people who are cohabiting spend more time with their friends than people who used to cohabit but then got married.
- There is only one way that married people ever do better than cohabiters: they rate themselves as healthier.
- There are no differences in the quality of adult children’s relationships with their parents for any of the comparisons (getting married without cohabiting vs. cohabitation then marriage; getting married without cohabiting vs. currently cohabiting; currently cohabiting vs. cohabitation then marriage). There are also no differences in contact with parents.
- If you compare the two groups who ended up married – those who went directly from being single to getting married, and those who cohabited before marrying – there were no differences whatsoever. Whether you cohabit or not before marrying makes no difference to your happiness, health, depression, self-esteem, the amount of time you spend with your friends, the amount of contact you have with your parents, or the quality of your relationship with your parents.
Although the study was published fairly recently, in 2012, the data the authors analyzed were collected a while back. The participants were first surveyed in 1987 or 1988 and were last contacted between 1992 and 1994. That means it will be useful to see the results of more recent studies. Fortunately, social scientists continue to be interested in this topic, and with cohabitation becoming more popular over time, they have even more opportunities to study it.
What Do These Findings Mean?
What do the authors have to say about the greater self-esteem and sometimes greater happiness of cohabiters over married people? They believe the results fit with “findings on the diminished sense of autonomy and personal growth in marriage, and may relate to the relative flexibility of cohabitation.” (Another study showed that autonomy is one of the profound rewards of staying single.)
Why do they think that the married people rated themselves as healthier? They considered the regressive explanation, popular among the pro-marriage advocates, that wives nag their husbands to eat their vegetables. But they instead favor this alternative: “…the package of entitlements that go with [marriage] – including health insurance for spouses – may better explain the health of the married.”
I agree. 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.
In an earlier post, I described results from 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 cohabit without ever marrying.