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The Cohabitation Epidemic
by Dr. Neil Clark Warren

Eleven million live-in partners prefer not to marry. Here's why they should reconsider…

Years ago, tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf announced that their first child would be born. "This is a very exciting time for us," Agassi said. "We are so happy to be blessed with this gift."
No one seemed to notice – or care – that the couple wasn't married. Only a generation ago, this revelation would have raised eyebrows.
Yes, Things have changed dramatically over the past few decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 million people were in "unmarried-partner households" in 1970. The number rose to 3.2 million in 1990. And in 2000, the figure soared to 11 million.
Now, half of all Americans ages 35 to 39 have lived with someone outside marriage, according to researcher Larry Bumpass. Make no mistake: We are witnessing a major societal shift before our very eyes.

When an epidemic reaches this level of societal acceptance, many well-meaning people begin to ask, "Should we accept cohabitation as another social trend akin to fast food, cell phones and casual Fridays?"

You may be wondering whether all this hubbub about living together is much ado about nothing.

As a psychologist who has worked with singles and married couples for 35 years, I think our alarm over this issue is much ado about a lot.

Who Cohabits and Why

Typically, people who cohabit fall into two categories.

First, there are those who have little or no intention of getting married. They simply want to enjoy the benefits of living together — the availability of sex, combined financial resources, shared household responsibilities and so on. This arrangement allows for a "quick exit" if things turn sour.

The second group are those who see living together as a trial marriage — a half-step toward the altar. These people say, "We'll live together first and see how it goes." They consider it prudent to take a test drive before signing on the dotted line.

Though I don't want to oversimplify a complex issue, I believe there are three primary reasons why these couples forgo or delay marriage:

1. Marriage has lost a lot of its luster in our society. The truth is, many people have never seen a successful, thriving marriage, mainly because great marriages are becoming scarce.  Several years ago, I conducted a survey in which I asked 500 individuals to tell me about the marriage they most admired. To my dismay, nearly half said they couldn't recommend even one healthy, exemplary marriage! With such a dearth of model marriages, it's understandable why so many young people hesitate to take the plunge.

2. Beyond the lack of model marriages, millions of people have suffered significant pain from broken marriages. One researcher estimates that 70 percent of all Americans have been impacted by divorce – either their parents' marriage or their own. When a broken marriage devastates someone's life, she or he may figure that getting married is just too risky.

3. The majority of singles have lost confidence in their ability to correctly judge a highly compatible and thus long-lasting match. Yet their needs for companionship, sexual satisfaction, and economic sufficiency motivate them to search for a person with whom they can have at least a temporary partnership.
So Why Bother With Marriage?

…The findings of psychological and other social science research overwhelmingly support marriage over cohabitation.

*** Marriage vows serve as glue that holds people together.

Numerous empirical studies destroy the myth that living together is good preparation for marriage, thus reducing the risk of divorce. In fact, one study involving 3,300 cases found that people who cohabited prior to marriage had a 46 percent higher marital failure rate than non-cohabiters.
Think about it.

The fundamental agreement upon which live-in relationships are based is conditional commitment. This attitude says, "I'll stick with you as long as things go well. But if we run into problems, all bets are off."

Relationships that begin with a quasi-commitment carry the same mind-set into marriage. When things become trying, as inevitably they will from time to time, the spouses say good-bye.
As David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote in their extensive review of recent literature, "Virtually all research on the subject has determined that the chances of divorce ending a marriage preceded by cohabitation are significantly greater than for a marriage not preceded by cohabitation."
*** Marriage provides the most stability for children.

Few live-in couples intend to have children, but it often happens.

More than a quarter of unmarried mothers are cohabiting at the time of their children's birth. Further, two-thirds of children who end up in stepfamilies have parents who are cohabiting rather than married.

This means that each year, thousands of children are born or moved into families where Mom and Dad's commitment to each other is tenuous or, at least, informal.

These children, during their most vulnerable developmental stages, are deprived of the security that comes from knowing their parents have pledged themselves to each other for a lifetime.

To make matters worse, 75 percent of all children born to cohabiting parents will experience their parents' separation before they reach age 16.

Only about one-third (33%) of children born to married parents face a similar fate.
*** Marriage offers promised permanence.

Most wedding vows still include the promise to "love, honor and cherish in sickness and in health, in plenty or in want, till death do us part."

One reason this is so important: The best relationships require partners who are genuine and authentic — who can be their real selves. The promised permanence of marriage allows just that: "I'll stick with you even when I come to know the real you, with all your imperfections and shortcomings."

But how can two individuals be authentic and genuine if they think their partner may bolt at the first sign of trouble? With the conditional commitment of live-in relationships, partners are left wondering, If I'm not who my partner wants me to be — if s/he sees my faults — will s/he pack his bags and leave?
*** Marriage creates healthier individuals.

Scores of studies have shown that married people are better off emotionally, physically, financially and vocationally than unmarried partners. For example, annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times what they are among married couples. And women in cohabiting relationships are significantly more likely than married women to suffer physical and sexual abuse.
*** Marriage partners are more likely to be faithful.

Four times as much infidelity is reported among cohabiting men than among married men. [And if men were promiscuous before marriage, that habit usually continues in marriage.] Morever, one married woman in one hundred (1%) reports having had an affair in the past year, compared to 8 percent of cohabiting women.
Amid the alarming statistics about cohabitation, we can confidently tell singles that a "trial marriage" is unnecessary.

In addition to the research showing the detriments of living together, several studies have discovered — with 80 percent to 94 percent accuracy — the variables that predict which marriages will thrive and which will not.

This means unmarried couples can know in advance if they have a better-than-average chance of succeeding in marriage. With this available information, hopefully the cohabitation trend will begin to cycle downward.
Dr. Neil Clark Warren is a psychologist and popular speaker based in CA. His best-selling books include Finding the Love of Your Life and How to Know if Someone is Worth Pursuing in Two Dates or Less. [Focus on the Family magazine, June/July 2003]

The marriage rate has decreased approximately 50 percent since 1950[3] It's now lower than it has ever been.


At the same time, the Census Bureau notes that cohabitation in the USA increased by 66 percent from 1990 to 2000 [4], and now 50 percent of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation [5]. That, I would submit, doesn't bode well for the future.


Couples who cohabit before marriage have an even greater chance of having their marriage end in divorce than those who marry without cohabitation [6]. 


Children of cohabitors are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, do poorly academically and live in poverty.[7]


…[A]bout half of cohabiting couples who are between the ages of 25 to 34 have children in their households.[8]


Illegitimacy: A Direct Result of Increased Cohabitation. With the rise of cohabitation, there has been the rise in illegitimacy. One in 3 babies born in America today are born out of wedlock.[9] That, too, doesn't bode well for the future because adolescents from single-parent families are twice as likely to drop out of school and to have an out-of-wedlock birth before age 20,[10].


Children living with a single mother are 6 to 7 times more likely to live in poverty than children in an intact family.[11]


Marriage Equals an Increase in Well-Being. The President has been absolutely right to promote marriage as a central component of his welfare reform proposals. Over and over again, the 2-parent, marriage-based family has proven itself to be the most effective ‘Department of Health and Human Services’ on the planet.


Whether you are talking about financial, emotional or physical security, marriage matters. Married people are happier, healthier and live longer than their counterparts,[12] and time and again, the benefits to children are demonstrably greater for children of married couples than for children whose parents are single or who cohabit.


Marriage is a wealth-enhancing institution. The longer the marriage lasts, the greater the family wealth.[13] Also, the data show that married people receive more wealth transfers from extended family than do cohabiting or single-parent families.[14] And children raised in single-parent homes are much more likely than children in married homes to live below the poverty line.[15] Indeed, the incidence of poverty among single women and children is vastly greater than in married households.[16]


It is also quite true that women

are much safer within the secure confines of the institution of marriage. Cohabiting couples reported physical aggression in their relationships 3 times the rate of that reported by married couples.[17]


Never married women are 4 times as likely to be violently abused by their boyfriend than married women are by their husbands. And divorced and separated women are 12 times as likely as married women to be abused by their spouse, ex-spouse, or boyfriend.[18]


Married and widowed people, by contrast, are the least likely to be victims of violent crime, and never married people are the most likely victims, followed by divorced and separated.[19]


Finally, married people are happier, healthier, and live much longer than their single counterparts.[20] Married men and women report significantly higher levels of happiness than unmarried people.[21]


And more importantly continually married people experience better emotional health and less depression then never-married, remarried, divorced, or widowed individuals.[22]


…As it relates to the whole welfare issue, any program of welfare reform that overlooks or trivializes or ignores the important role that marriage plays in the physical, emotional, economic or social welfare of a culture is guaranteed to miss the mark.


Marriage matters; not just to its partners and children, but to the economy and to the culture as well.

[Ken Connor, President of the Family Research Council, delivered this speech, excerpted,  at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, July 16, 2002 during a panel discussion sponsored by the The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life entitled, The Compassion Component: Welfare Reform and the Tradition of Social Justice.]



4. U.S. Census Bureau, "Unmarried-Couple Households, by Presence of Children: 1960 to Present," Table UC-1, Washington, D.C. June 29, 2001.

5. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage," The National Marriage Project, January 1999, p. 3.

6. Ibid., pp. 3, 4.

7. Susan L. Brown, "Child Well-Being in Cohabiting Families," in Alan Booth and Ann. C. Crouter, eds., Just Living Together:Implications of Cohabitation on Families, Children and Social Policy (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002), p. 173-187.

8. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "Should We Live Together?" p. 7.

9. Joyce A. Martin et al., Births: Final Data for 2000, National Vital Statistics Reports 50, February 12, 2002, National Center for Health Statistics, Table 8.

10. Sara Mclanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up With A Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 2.

11. Pat Fagan, How Broken Families Rob Children of Their Chances for Prosperity," Heritage Backgrounder No. 1283, June 11, 1999, p. 14.

12. Catherine E. Ross et al., "The Impact of the Family on Health: The Decade in Review," Journal of Marriage and the Family 52 (November 1990): 1059-1078.

13. Lingxin Hao, "Family Structure, Private Transfers, and the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children," Social Forces 75 (September 1996): 269-292.

14. Ibid.

15. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, "America's Children: Key Indicators of Well-Being 2001," Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, p. 14.

16. U.S. Census Bureau, "Historical Income Tables–Families," Table F-10. Available at

17. Sonia Miner Salari and Bret M. Baldwin, "Verbal, Physical, and Injurious Aggression Among Intimate Couples Over Time," Journal of Family Issues 23 (May 2002): 523-550.

18. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Intimate Partner Violence, The National Crime Victimization Survey, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., May 2000, pp.4-5, 11.

19. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization 1999: Changes 1998-1999 with Trends 1993-1999, National Crime Victimization Survey, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., August 2000, p. 7.

20. Catherine E. Ross et al., "The Impact of the Family on Health."

21. Steven Stack and Ross Eshleman, "Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study," Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (May 1998): 527-536.

22. Nadine F. Marks and James David Lambert, "Marital Status Continuity and Change Among Young and Midlife Adults," Journal of Family Issues 19 (November 1998): 652-686.