Characteristics of Cohabiting Adults Studied
Special Report - July 16, 2009
Cohabitation is becoming more common among young adults in their early twenties, and two recent studies shed light on the attitudes and characteristics of men and women who live together outside of marriage. The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that between four and five percent of U.S. households are cohabiting households, 60-70 percent of couples live together before marriage, and 39 percent of cohabiting households contain children.
A July 2009 report by researchers at Child Trends notes that despite the increase in cohabitation, young adults continue to express high expectations about marriage. According to the Child Trends report, 75 percent of young adults say that “love, fidelity and making lifelong commitment” is very important to a successful relationship. However, over half of young adults (57 percent) said that it is “OK for unmarried couples to live together even if marriage is not being considered.” While the majority of young unmarried adults said that they do not want to be married right now, 83 percent said they would like to be married someday. The desire for marriage was also strong among the majority of adults who believe that cohabitation is acceptable, with 83 percent saying that it was either important or very important to them personally to be married someday.
“Cohabitation may actually serve as an alternative to marriage, but only temporarily, because most cohabiting young adults felt that it was important or very important to be married someday,” according to the authors of the Child Trends brief.
While many young adults may view cohabitation an acceptable step toward a successful marriage, most research shows that the opposite is true. According to Professor Scott M. Stanley and Galena Rhoads of the University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies, “The ‘facts’ about cohabitation just do not line up well with the beliefs most people, especially young people, hold.” In a recent article for the National Council for Family Relations, they write that “Virtually every published study that has examined premarital cohabitation finds it to be associated with greater, rather than lower, risk for problems in marriage.” According to Stanley and Rhoads, cohabiting before marriage is associated with something called the “cohabitation effect,” which includes:
- More negative commitment in marriage
- Lower levels of marital satisfaction
- Erosion over time of the value and view of marriage and childrearing
- Greater likelihood of divorce.
Stanley and Rhoads, along with Howard Markman, are involved in a new (and ongoing) study of unmarried adults, which is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The study involves a survey that is mailed every four to six months to a random sample of 18 to 34 year-olds. When the researchers compared daters who plan to marry with cohabiting individuals who plan to marry, they found that cohabiting adults tend to be: less educated, older, more likely to already have children, more likely to have divorced parents, and to have experienced conflict in their families as children. Cohabiting adults who plan to marry also tend to have more lifetime sexual partners, and are less religious than dating adults who plan to marry.“Cohabitation is a dangerous gamble for couples, especially those who hope to have a successful marriage one day,” said Alysse ElHage, associate director of research for the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “While it is encouraging to hear that most young people, even those who are currently cohabiting, maintain high expectations about marriage, it is important that they know the truth about cohabitation, especially that it significantly raises their risk of marital conflict and divorce, once they do get married.”
Copyright © 2009. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.