By Ashlee Kendell
Over the past 50 years, research has shown that the average increased risk for divorce, when related to premarital cohabitation, has not changed. We have 50 years of evidence indicating that cohabiting before marriage does not lead to longevity in marriage, yet the rates for cohabitation continue to increase. Why is that? People have come up with lots of reasons, such as convenience, to test the strength and durability of the relationship, or finances, to name a few. But these justifications just don’t hold water.
Back in 1968, only 0.1% of 18-24-year-olds and 0.2% of 25-34-year-olds lived in a cohabiting relationship. Currently, according to the Census Bureau, four million heterosexual couples are involved in cohabiting relationships. That’s eight times more than in 1970. In the meantime, marriage in America has suffered. In 1978, 59% of young adults ages 18-34 were married, compared to only 30% today. Those numbers are mind-blowing. Research also shows that legally married couples stay together at a much higher rate than those who cohabit and have higher levels of happiness. Evidence indicates both partners benefit from improved emotional, mental, and physical health.
When it comes to sexual relationships, roughly 4% of married women have sex with someone other than their partner compared to 20% of cohabiting women and 18% of dating women. That translates to roughly one in five cohabiting and dating women not being faithful to their partner. The key thing that is missing here is fidelity and commitment. A relationship that starts without the foundation of commitment does not suggest great odds for marital success. Now imagine the impact of unstable cohabiting relationships on children.
Impact on children
Even though a cohabiting couple’s family structure might look similar to a married couple’s, the effects of that structure on the child are not similar to a child born to a married mother and father. Children living in cohabiting households do not receive the same support socially and institutionally as those in a married family and face considerable family instability. Unfortunately, we know that family stability is a major contributor to a child’s healthy development. On the other hand, children born to married parents are more likely to live with their biological parents until adulthood. This leads to better emotional well-being due to there being a more prominent father figure as well as greater consistency in who they are exposed to in their home.
On average, a cohabiting relationship lasts for 18 months. Children born in these short-term relationships suffer the same negative effects as children born to single parents and those that have suffered a divorce. They will have an increased risk of low birth weight as a baby, as well as asthma, obesity, and poor health in childhood. Even if a cohabiting couple eventually marries, their child is more likely to suffer poor health compared to children with securely married parents. They will, however, fare better than those whose parents never married. The stability that comes from a marriage relationship improves healthy development in children and enhances their emotional well-being.
A common story
Given all of this information, why is it that cohabitation is held in such high regard? Perhaps not enough people are aware of the impact that cohabitation has on a couple’s married relationship. One such couple, Scott and Jennifer, “believed that living together before marriage would save them money and prepare them for what marriage would really be like one day.” With encouragement from their parents, they set up house together. A few years later, Scott and Jennifer were a typical young married couple – they bought a home and had children but encountered challenges in their marriage that they attribute to their cohabiting before their wedding. They later recognized that “unrealistic expectations and unresolved conflict that they brought into their marriage were detrimental to it…We are in a committed, happy, and fulfilling marriage today, but if we could do it all over again, we would certainly make different choices.”
Scott and Jenifer were able to work it out in the end, but they could have avoided much of the potential harm to their relationship had they waited to live together until after they were married. Marital quality for those who cohabitate before marriage is lower than those who wait to live together until after the wedding ceremony. That alone is reason enough.
Ashlee is a senior at Brigham Young University-Idaho and will graduate in April with a degree in Child Development. Ashlee has always understood the importance of family and believes very strongly in strengthening and advocating for the family unit. She also loves to read, cook, play sports, and do anything outside.