How Living Together Beats Marriage

Although it's long been thought that marriage offers all sorts of health and psychological benefits, a new study has found that cohabiters do just as well as those who have said, "I do."
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Think marriage will make you happier than living together? Not so fast.

Although it's long been thought that marriage offers all sorts of health and psychological benefits, a new study has found that cohabiters do just as well as those who have said, "I do" -- and in some cases even better.

Studies being touted by pro-marriage factions that link marriage to adult well-being may "overstate the relative benefits of marriage," writes Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell's College of Human Ecology, who conducted the study, "Reexamining the Case for Marriage: Union Formation and Changes in Well-being," with Larry Bumpass, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Our research shows that marriage is by no means unique in promoting well-being and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits."

The study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, compares marriage to cohabitation and focuses on what changes occur when singles marry or cohabit and if those persist. Using a sample from the National Survey of Families and Households of 2,737 single men and women, 896 of whom married or moved in with a partner in a six-year period, the researchers looked at happiness, depression, health and social ties.

Musick spoke with me about the findings:

Q: How many men versus women participated in your study?

A: I ultimately pooled them together because I didn't find any striking differences between the two, and that was a little surprising to me. There's some common sense knowledge that cohabitation's a better deal for men than women, but there were a lot of similarities in the findings.

Q: What are the benefits cohabitation can offer versus marriage?

A: Probably the most striking finding is the great similarity in the outcomes of the married and the cohabiters. You see a burst of well-being, particularly in the short-term, the honeymoon period. Both entering into marriage and cohabitation actually results in diminished contact with friends and family. There were health gains to married couples over cohabiters, but I think mainly that has to do with health insurance. Where the cohabiters ended up a little bit ahead is in happiness and self-esteem.

Q: How can cohabitation boost self-esteem?

A: Maybe they feel a little more secure in the relationship at the same time that they have more autonomy than marriage. One of the key ways a sociologist, including myself, would think marriage matters is the institutionalization, the norms around the behavior, how you're supposed to act, what you're supposed to do and it (marriage) provides a label you can internalize and that signals things to people around you. But there are ways institutions, especially when we're talking about individual well-being and self-fulfillment, might have negative effects. We can't test that directly; all we can do look at our data and observe that the changes in happiness were somewhat greater for cohabiters.

Marriage's expectations and potentially unwanted obligations that come along with it may be stifling for some couples. In cohabitation, some couples may be more geared to creating relationships that really work for them. It may be that in cohabitation, some couples feel more at ease with a relationship where the woman is making more money; in marriage, there may be more social pressure on the husband to out-earn his spouse.

Q: Couldn't spouses tweak the "institution" to fit their needs, too?

A: Marriage has become less institutionalized and cohabitation is becoming more so, and so the two are kind of meeting in the middle. It used to be that gender roles were more tightly prescribed in marriage. It was much clearer who was supposed to be doing what; if you look at "Mad Men," the woman stays home and looks pretty and takes care of the house and the man brings home the money and on either side if you're failing in your role, it's a real failure in your role as a spouse. Marriage is a lot more flexible nowadays, but there's still a lot that comes along it, some of it that's really supportive, but also expectations. Who gets in trouble when Grandma doesn't get a thank-you note? There's still a lot of expectation that wives maintain the calendars and send the Christmas presents and plan the parties.

Q: The thinking has been that it isn't marriage that makes people happy; happy people marry. Wouldn't the same situation exist for those cohabiting?

A: Consistent with other studies, we found that those who go on to marry start off with higher levels of happiness, higher levels of self-esteem than singles, and the cohabiters look a little bit better than singles. The key piece of the analysis is focusing on comparisons of these changes across the different union statuses. For example, the average change over time is that people become a little happier and a little less depressed as they age, so everyone's getting a little better, but those who moved into cohabitation or those who moved into marriage were happier than single people.

Q: Previous studies found that those who were just testing a relationship tended to break up more than those who moved in together already feeling committed. How much did commitment factor into your study?

A: It's not part of the study. We really wanted to compare what changes occur when people move into marriage or cohabitation and we wanted to compare that to people who remain single. On average, cohabiters are probably less committed. There's a lot of variation in why people cohabit. Not everyone's cohabiting because they want to spend their life with their partner, but there's a lot of overlap. There's a group of cohabiters and married couples who look real similar on a lot of those measures of commitment and attachment.

Q: Your study stops at six years of living together. How do we know that these benefits will continue for the long-term?

A: Not a lot of cohabitations are long-term. Cohabiters tend to move into marriage or break up in a relatively short time so long-term cohabitations are kind of rare. Through our study what we can say is the level of happiness or self-esteem and well-being while these people are cohabiting, whether it's moving into marriage or not, they're doing pretty well. ... In other places, like Europe, long-term cohabitations are not uncommon. Maybe we're moving in that direction but we're not there yet.

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