Cohabitation vs. Marriage

By Tiffany Williams-Jallow, Relationships360° Founder

A generation ago, it was taboo for couples to live together without having a marriage license. Today, the practice popularly known as “shacking up” has become commonplace. Is cohabitation causing the divorce rate to spike? Does domestic partnership lead to increased fidelity, relationship satisfaction and financial security than traditional marriage? Licensed Marriage and Family counselor, Ed Fenn, and I discussed these questions and more on the latest episode of Relationships360, which began airing today, April 3, 2010.

The benefits of marriage as opposed to couples living together were overwhelming in all the major problem areas most people experience while in committed relationships including finances, faithfulness and of course, sex! The research strongly supports the notion that women in married relationships are more financially secure than cohabitating women. There are a few reasons for this as Mr. Fenn explained on the show. First, cohabitating women statistically earn more than married women; however, this statistic has a dark side. This is because more often than not, according to the research, unmarried women’s live in boyfriends earn significantly less than their cohabitating girlfriends or don’t work at all. Likewise, cohabitating women feel the need to compensate for their live in boyfriends’ lack of income and financial contribution to the relationship by dedicating themselves to working in order to build up their financial nest egg in the event of a break up.

At first glance, cohabitation or “test driving” a woman or man before making a commitment may seem to lend itself to greater fidelity than couples who decide to remain in separate households before jumping the broom, but the research overwhelmingly shows that this practice leads to a revolving door for cohabitating persons wherein anytime the cohabitating individual becomes dissatisfied with his or her partner, they break off the relationship and jump in another only to more frequently than not, repeat the same behavior forming a pattern of non commitment. The body of research shows marriage lends itself to greater fidelity as the focus of the couple is to satisfy each other rather than satisfy themselves. According to Mr. Fenn, cohabitation is a “receiving relationship” in that the couple is focused on what’s in this relationship for “me” rather than how each person in the couple can make their mate happy such as in a marriage or what Mr. Fenn calls a “giving relationship.”

In the bedroom, once again, it is more beneficial for a couple to be married as researchers find married couples are more satisfied than unmarried couples. As well, the common finding that married couples are more faithful to each other than unmarried couples seems to make sense. If married couples are more sexually satisfied than those who are unmarried, it would follow that they would cheat less on their spouses than couples who cohabitate and less fulfilled in the bedroom. Other dark sides to shacking up as it relates to sex include more abortions, higher infant mortality rate and more sexually transmitted diseases than married couples. This appears to be due to greater instances of depression and similarly, relationship dissatisfaction than married couples experience, which negatively impact cohabitating women’s mental and physical health. I could delve deeper into these issues, but feel readers of this blog would be better served by looking at the same research I used for the show and for this post. I have provided several links along the right side of this page as further reference.

Before I get off my soapbox, I’d like to specifically address my blog readers who are in cohabitating relationships. If you are planning to stay together, but never marry, please consider signing a “Living Together Agreement.” I have provided a link under the “Relationship Tools” section of this blog. The document helps to protect the financial assets and property of each cohabitating partner providing them similar rights as married couples. Finally, based on the statistics, marriage relationships preceded by cohabitation end in divorce at a more rapid pace than marriages not preceded by couples who shared the same roof. Thus, I’d like to extend a handful of tips to improve your chances of a good marriage following cohabitation:

1.) Make the decision to live with your sweetie, slowly, seriously and with great care.

2.) Be clear about your expectations and keep them reasonable.

3.) Don’t marry your cohabitating partner because you hope the marriage will change him or her.

4.) Write and sign a living together agreement to help clarify your expectations and define how you’ll handle finances and property. (Check out the book from Nolo Publishers titled: Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples. The 1st person to respond to this post and sign up to this blog’s email list will receive a free copy from me.)

5.) Take a couple’s education class. (There are links to many great resources on this blog and if you’re married, you’ll want to check out the Retreats and Seminars link.) Ultimately, my desire is for all couples – married and unmarried – is to pursue positive and effective ways to cultivate healthy, long-term relationships. Hopefully, this blog helps.



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One comment

  1. Excellent piece!!! I plan to share it with my SigO and then I will come back with further discussion lol…But, I do think living together whether married or not unveils the true character of your spouse and it forces you to evaluate the relationship constantly, which i think is a good thing.

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