Is Cohabitation Better Than Marriage?

June 14, 2012

When it comes to comparing the overall well being of married couples versus cohabiting Valentines, those who are married have just few advantages in psychological well being, health and social ties, according to a study, titled "Re-examining the Case for Marriage: Union Formation and Changes in Well-being."

The Cornell University researchers, led by Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell's College of Human Ecology, found that differences between marriage and cohabitation are very small and disappear after a honeymoon is over. In addition, it was revealed that while married couples experienced greater health benefits, such as shared health care plans, cohabiting partners tended to be happier and experience greater gains in self-esteem.

Researchers have noted that for many decades marriage has been considered an important social institution, however, in recent years the number of people opting for cohabitation before or instead of marriage, significantly increased. This happens because for some individuals cohabitation may mean less commitment and undesired obligations, as well as more flexibility, independence and personal growth, the experts explained.

In their study, Musick and a co-author sociologist Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed nearly 3,000 single men and women over a period of six years in order to find out what would happen when they started a relationship or tied the knot. The data was collected from the National Survey of Families and Households in the late 80s and early 90s. All the surveyors were asked to rate their overall health as well as how happy they perceived themselves to be. They were also asked to assess their self -esteem, depression and the strength of their social ties, including close friends and family. Over the nearly 20-year period of the study, around 900 participants married or started a romantic relationship with a partner.

After analyzing all the answers, researchers found that, in general, both marriage and cohabitation came with an increase in overall well being. Researchers found that when compared to individuals who remained single, the participants who began to cohabit with a romantic partner experienced higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress and depression, although these advantages decreased over time. As to those who got married over the study period, they reported greater health benefits than those who cohabited. However, both matrimony and cohabitation were found to reduce contact with family and friends when compared to being single, and this effect lasted over time.

According to Gary Lee, professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the findings of this study are extremely valuable and important because they shed a better light on the advantages of marriage, and oppose the common belief that marriage is the solution for all the problems, which is quite a naïve view. In reality, Lee added, the people who choose not to marry may not be doing so because, in their opinion, the marriage will not make them any better off. Given today's recession and crisis in economy, marriage does not bring the same financial benefits as it used to, he said.

Musick and Bumpass noted that it has been about twenty years since the surveys they used were carried out, and the relative benefits of marriage against cohabitation may have changed in past years. However, it is still not clear whether these new findings would hold more or less true for present generation, Musick said. On the one hand, the experiences of marriage and living together out of wedlock have become increasingly similar, but on the other hand, the institution of marriage may still hold a greater social status than cohabitation in the western countries, the authors concluded.

The research was partly funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences. The results are published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Tags: Marriage

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