|Study Reveals Perils of Cohabitation
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 30 JUNE 2008 (ZENIT)
Living together before marriage is a very
common practice for couples in many countries. Many defend it on the
basis that it enables the future husband and wife to get to know each
Abundant evidence exists, however, that cohabitation is more of an
obstacle rather than an advantage in preparing for marriage. Michael and
Harriet McManus recently published “Living Together: Myths, Risks and
Answers (Howard Books), which documents their research on the topic.
The authors, founders of the organization Marriage Savers, warn that
couples who cohabit before marriage are much more likely to divorce
afterward. There is a big difference, they say, between a permanent bond
such as marriage and just living together in a conditional relationship.
Typically in cohabitation the two individuals are more concerned on
obtaining satisfaction from the other person, they write. In marriage,
by contrast, spouses tend to focus more on giving satisfaction to the
One major problem with cohabitation, the book explains, is that the two
partners often start living together for very different motives. While
many women look upon it as a stepping-stone to marriage, men often look
at it for convenience, and not as a firm commitment.
Furthermore, the authors cite studies showing that typically
cohabitation is not a fifty-fifty division of expenses and burdens.
Women tend to contribute more, both in terms of money and in domestic
Numerous recent studies also demonstrate that physical attacks against
women are much more common among cohabiting couples than among married
couples. Serious violence and murder are also more prevalent among
couples who are not married.
Another concern is the welfare of children. Michael and Harriet McManus
point out that 41% of cohabiting U.S. couples in 2003 had children under
18 years of age living with them.
Children of couples living together without being married are at a
serious disadvantage. Compared to children of married couples, they have
higher rates of delinquency, they do worse at school, and suffer
psychologically from the unstable home environment.
Further detailed information on the perils of cohabitation came in a
report published in June by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers
University. Authored by family and marriage expert David Popenoe, the
study titled “Cohabitation, Marriage and child Wellbeing: A
Cross-National Perspective” starts by stating: “No family change has
come to the fore in modern times more dramatically, and with such
rapidity, as heterosexual cohabitation outside of marriage."
Popenoe cited data showing that in the United States figures from 2002
show that over 50% of women aged 19 to 44 had cohabited for a portion of
their lives. As cohabitation rates have skyrocketed, marriage rates have
plummeted, he added.
“Yet cohabitation in place of marriage should be considered a major
societal concern,” Popenoe warned. He explained that an abundance of
research shows clear benefits for married couples, who are normally
happier, healthier and economically better off.
Research also points to a significant reduction in these benefits if a
couple is only living together and are not married.
Popenoe agreed with the McManus book concerning the disadvantages of
cohabitation for children. Given that cohabiting couples break up at a
higher rate compared to married couples, this brings with it more stress
and disruption for children. Higher rates of child abuse and family
violence also bring problems for kids.
This disadvantage for children, Popenoe commented, also has a lot to do
with the major trend in family patterns in past years with the shift of
child rearing from married parents to single parents, mostly mothers. In
a number of countries the chances are now better than fifty-fifty that a
child will spend some time living with just one parent before reaching
Single parenthood stems both from unwed births and from parental breakup
after birth. Cohabitation is a factor in spurring higher parenthood due
to births to couples not married. It is also responsible due to the
higher breakup rate for cohabiting couples who have children
which is more than twice what it is for married couples with children.
Popenoe tied in the higher break-up rate to the lack of commitment in
cohabiting couples, a point also mentioned in the McManus book.
Cohabiting partners, he said, “tend to have a weaker sense of couple
identity, less willingness to sacrifice for the other, and a lower
desire to see the relationship go long term.”
He cited one study carried out in the United States that calculated
cohabiting couples break up at a rate five times higher than for married
Popenoe also looked at the situation in Europe, where cohabitation is
even more prevalent than in the United States. In Northern and Central
Europe, plus the United Kingdom, more than 90% of couples live together
In general, Popenoe commented, just about all these countries, plus
others such as Australia and New Zealand, are heading in the direction
of the high cohabitation rates found in Scandinavia.
In response to these changes many governments have introduced varying
forms of legislation to recognize partnerships that give a series of
legal benefits to couples who register their relationship.
It is still not clear, he observed, whether legislation is merely
following social changes, or if it has itself also fostered the growth
of cohabitation. It is likely, however, Popenoe opined, that giving
legal recognition to cohabitation will weaken the status of marriage.
“There can be no doubt that the rise of non-marital cohabitation in
modern nations has seriously weakened the institution of marriage, and
strongly contributed to substantial and continuing increases in unwed
births and lone-parent families,” Popenoe concluded at the end of his
From the point of view of the welfare of society and of children
cohabitation is of little benefit, he argued. Even in some European
countries with very well-financed welfare systems that support children
there is still a substantial gap in child well-being between children
who grow up in intact families and those who do not.
Marriage and the family were one of the topics examined by Benedict XVI
in his recent visit to the United States. During the celebration of
vespers with bishops on April 16 the Pope noted his “deep concern” over
the state of the family.
The Pontiff commented that family life makes is not only where we can
live the experience of justice and love, but that it is also the primary
place for evangelization and passing on the faith.
He noted that in addition to an increase in divorce, many young men and
women are choosing to postpone marriage or forego it.
“To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems
scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal
and open-ended arrangement to live with another person,” the Holy Father
“[T]he Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public
promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment,”
is lacking in cohabitation, he added.
“In such circumstances, children are denied the secure environment that
they need in order truly to flourish as human beings, and society is
denied the stable building blocks which it requires if the cohesion and
moral focus of the community are to be maintained,” Benedict XVI
concluded. Problems that many countries around the world are struggling
to deal with.