The Point: The Myth of Cohabitation

There’s no replacement for marriage. For the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, I’m John Stonestreet with The Point.

New research by Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia comparing cohabitation with marriage debunks major myths about cohabitation.

First, the idea that cohabitation is only less stable because poorer people are more likely to choose it, is false. In reality, cohabiting couples are less stable than married couples regardless of educational background. In Europe, the least educated married couples enjoy more stability than the most educated cohabiting couples!

Another myth is that cohabitation becomes more like marriage as it becomes more common. Not so for children, says Wilcox. Couples who are married when they have kids are markedly more stable than cohabiting couples, even in countries where both are common.

In marriage, couples publicly commit to life together. Even when they don’t keep the commitment, making it matters. Cohabitation, however, says to partners and children, “I’m not sure about you,” and you can measure the consequences of that.


The Three Myths of Cohabitation
  • Andrea Palpant Dilley | Christianity Today | March 29, 2017

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.

  • Robert Cremer

    Cohabitation is not a test of a relationship, rather an avoidance of commitment.
    Cohabitation is for cowards, they do not have the courage to be committed.
    Cohabitation is an excuse for wanting the advantages of marriage without paying the price of commitment.
    Cohabitation is not admitting doubts about the other person being the “One”, rather doubts that you can grow up and be an adult.
    Cohabitation is a game for people who don’t want to grow up.
    Cohabitation is a self-center act of being all about “me”. Real Marriage is about sacrificial love.
    I know! Been married for 40 years and still going strong, thanks to Jesus!

    • Bill

      Robert, After 54 years of marriage, many times, I must admit, our commitment to our vows are what kept Sue, and I together. Marriage IS the best male, female relationship, because children happen. Best for the children also, as our 3 children and 5 grandchildren have learned the hard way. God’s way is always best!

  • Jaxian

    I worry that there some misleading information going on here.

    First, I think that these myths might not be real. I have not heard it said, nor have my Internet searches found, anyone who says that cohabitation instability is caused by low income. I have similarly found little evidence that people believe cohabitation will become more similar to marriage the more common it becomes. I don’t think those are common beliefs, and certainly they are not fundamental to arguments in support of cohabitation.

    By fabricating these beliefs, then striking them down, we make it appear as though we have successfully argued against cohabitation, when in reality, we are arguing against no one. This is the straw man logical fallacy.

    Second, I think that this study doesn’t really support the claims that it is making. I should point out immediately that the study was conducted by the Institute for Family Studies, a group whose stated objective is “strengthening marriage.” Already, we should be on our guard for a biased study.

    It is also a little worrying that the study’s link to details about their Data Sources redirects to a 404 Not Found error. But that is okay, I can believe that they do accurately reflect reality.

    The study’s bigger problem is this: it concludes that cohabitation is inherently less stable than marriage, and suggests that we can increase stability by increasing marriage rates. However that’s not at all what it has shown. There is a huge difference between correlation and causation, and the study has not shown causation.

    So we have to ask ourselves this: does being unmarried cause relationships to become short term, or are people who will have short-term relationships deciding not to marry? (Or, of course, there could be a third thing, causing both).

    It should be obvious that only people who plan to spend their lives together will get married. People who don’t plan to spend their lives together will almost never get married, though they will often live together. So “married” couples will only contain people who want a long-term relationship while “cohabiting” couples will contain some people who don’t want that at all.

    So we should ask ourselves this: if we tried to coerce cohabiting people to marry, would we reach people who don’t actually want a long-term relationship? Probably not. And so would coercing people to marry actually increase stability for children? I’m doubtful. Certainly the study has not shown this.

    It also means that two people who are committed to a long term relationship and wish to cohabitate may be perfectly likely to stay together, and as such, I would recommend that we do not disparage them.

    I worry that we get so caught up in the term marriage that we miss the real problems we’re trying to solve. People are finding it less desirable to form a family, and families are finding it less desirable to have children. This is likely because in a developed society, a child costs more money than it used to, provides less labor, and occupies a great deal of time. People just find that the trade-off isn’t worth it. That’s not a problem we can fix by harping on marriage. We need to fix it at its roots, and make children more desirable. And we need new ideas to solve it.

    • Stan Colbert

      Cohabitation doesn’t increase the chances a couple will stay together long term. Marriage for life has numerous benefits to the couple, their children even their grandchildren, community, country. Therefore we need to promote those behaviors that enhance a couple’s longevity.

      • Jaxian

        I agree that cohabitation (vs marriage) doesn’t increase the chances a couple will stay together long-term Do you think marriage does increase those chances? Why? And what benefits do you feel it provides, and why?

        • Stan Colbert

          Marriage for life has a wide variety of benefits. The couple, on average, have better health thus longer lifespans, earn more wealth, have more sex and are generally happier. Divorce cancels these benefits. Children raised in families married for life are more likely to marry for life. They get better grades in school thus get accepted to better colleges, have better career opportunities, earn more wealth, are healthier, live longer, are more likely to marry for life. They are less likely to have problems with law enforcement. This trait also extends to the 3rd generation. Marriage for life might not be the exact variable which enables these results, however, the overwhelming research points significantly to marriage for life as an important variable. This research extends from liberal institutions such as UC Berkley, and Harvard to religious polling data from DEC and Barna. There are even liberal professors from US Madison and Australia (I apologize for not having names) who believe children from two parent married families have so many advantages the government should remove the children from homes and place them in state run living spaces to even out the field for all children. Thank you sir for your interest.

          • Jaxian

            But this is no different than I described above: correlation without causation. I can believe that people who find a long, stable relationship are happier and healthier, and I can believe that people who are married are more likely to be in such a relationship. But does the happy relationship provide these benefits, or is it actually caused by filing some legal paperwork to make people officially “married”?

            This is an important distinction because the author is suggesting that moving people from “cohabiting” to “married” will be an improvement. But if look at people who are in happy, long-term cohabiting relationships (of which the study says there are many), do we think that filing marriage paperwork would really have improved their lives? I tend to doubt that.

            Or what if we push people who are in less stable relationships to marry? Will that suddenly grant them all these benefits? I suspect it will not, as their relationship is likely to be no more happy than it was before.

            All we’d be doing is shifting people around in categories, taking some people who are currently “unmarried” and moving them to “married.” But unless people’s relationships actually change, then just recategorizing people won’t really do anything.

            Instead of promoting marriage, we should be fixing the problems that are stopping people from wanting to form a long-term relationship. Instead of blaming cohabitation, we should be blaming an economic situation that makes marriage undesirable. If we can fix the root of the problem, then marriage rates will take care of themselves. But so long as we’re only looking at the surface, then we won’t really change anything.

          • Stan Colbert

            I see, what you are saying! My definition of marriage is a mutually exclusive couple committing to love each other for the rest of there lives. The paperwork is just a sign of the commitment already made. Can this commitment be made without paperwork? Certainly.
            My definition of cohabitation is a couple coming together for some other reason than a 100% commitment to love each other for the remainder of their lives.
            The first relationship is full of advantages, the second, is almost certain to fail. You are absolutely correct in we need to solidify the first type of relationship and discourage the second.

        • Stan Colbert

          I apologize, DEC should read FRC, US should read UW below.

    • Bill

      Jaxian, did you use this link to the study? It worked fine for me.

  • Francisco Flores

    The Biblical imperative: “Hey Adam, this is God, if you don’t like Eve and the way I made her for you, try her out and cohabit for awhile; and if you still don’t like her after living together, I will make you another female.” Of course, Elohim did not say the latter statement. He created Eve for Adam’s longevity and for a stable one man one woman relationship until death do you part. After Adam, we humans created the self-deception of “no fault divorce,” “polygamy,” “same-sex marriage,” and other substitutes that simply cannot match the uniqueness of God’s original creation. One national statistic from Focus on the Family in 1989, suggests that 95% of cohabiting couples split after 2 years.
    The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reports: article by Sheri Stritof in
    “Cohabitation, once rare, is now the norm: The researchers found that more than half (54 percent) of all first marriages between 1990 and 1994 began with unmarried cohabitation. They estimate that a majority of young men and women of marriageable age today will spend some time in a cohabiting relationship.
    “…Cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages and that instabiilty is increasing”
    Cohabitation Facts
    Living together is considered to be more stressful than being married.
    Just over 50% of first cohabiting couples ever get married.
    In the United States and in the UK, couples who live together are at a greater risk for divorce than non-cohabiting couples.
    Couples who lived together before marriage tend to divorce early in their marriage. If their marriage last seven years, then their risk for divorce is the same as couples who didn’t cohabit before marriage.
    Cohabiting couples had a separation rate five times that of married couples and a reconciliation rate that was one-third that of married couples.
    Cohabiting couples are more likely to experience infidelity.
    Compared to those planning to marry, those cohabiting have an overall poorer relationship quality. They tend to have more fighting and violence and less reported happiness.

    Cohabiting couples earn less money and are less wealthy than their married peers later in life.
    Compared to married individuals, those cohabiting have higher levels of depression and substance abuse.