The Negative Effects of Cohabitation
Linda J. Waite
Americans often talk as if marriage were a private, personal relationship. But when two people live together for their own strictly private reasons, and carve out their own, strictly private bargain about the relationship, we call that relationship not marriage but "cohabitation." In America, it is now more popular than ever. More men and women are moving in together, sharing an apartment and a bed, without getting married first. The latest Census Bureau figures show four million couples living together outside of marriage (not counting gay couples), eight times as many as in 1970. And many more people have cohabited than are currently doing so; recent figures show that almost two-thirds of young adult men and women chose to cohabit first rather than marry directly.
Most cohabitations are quite short-lived; they typically last for about a year or a little more and then are transformed into marriages or dissolve. Although many observers expected the United States to follow the path blazed by the Nordic countries toward a future of informal but stable relationships, this has not happened. We see no sign that cohabitation is becoming a long-term alternative to marriage in the U.S. It has remained a stage in the courtship process or a temporary expediency, but not typically a stable social arrangement. Thus, by resembling marriage in some ways and differing from it in others, cohabitation brings some but not all of the costs and benefits of marriage.
The Cohabitation Deal versus the Marriage Bargain
Cohabitation is a tentative, non-legal coresidential union. It does not require or imply a lifetime commitment to stay together. Even if one partner expects the relationship to be permanent, the other partner often does not. Cohabiting unions break up at a much higher rate than marriages. Cohabitors have no responsibility for financial support of their partner and most do not pool financial resources. Cohabitors are more likely than married couples to both value separate leisure activities and to keep their social lives independent. Although most cohabitors expect their relationship to be sexually exclusive, in fact they are much less likely than husbands and wives to be monogamous.
A substantial proportion of cohabiting couples have definite plans to marry, and these couples tend to behave like already-married couples. Others have no plans to marry and these tentative and uncommitted relationships are bound together by the "cohabitation deal" rather than the "marriage bargain." In fact, couples may choose cohabitation precisely because it carries no formal constraints or responsibilities.
But the deal has costs. The tentative, impermanent, and socially unsupported nature of cohabitation impedes the ability of this type of partnership to deliver many of the benefits of marriage, as does the relatively separate lives typically pursued by cohabiting partners. The uncertainty about the stability and longevity of the relationship makes both investment in the relationship and specialization with this partner much riskier than in marriage. Couples who expect to stay together for the very long run can develop some skills and let others atrophy because they can count on their spouse (or partner) to fill in where they are weak. This specialization means that couples working together in a long-term partnership will produce more than the same people would working alone. But cohabitation reduces the benefits and increases the costs of specializing-it is much safer to just do everything for yourself since you don't know whether the partner you are living with now will be around next year. So cohabiting couples typically produce less than married couples.
The temporary and informal nature of cohabitation also makes it more difficult and riskier for extended family to invest in and support the relationship. Parents, siblings, friends of the partners are less likely to get to...
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