Cohabitation and Relationship Quality

As marriage rates among U.S. adults decline, cohabiting unions rise. Within the last nine years alone, the number of cohabiting relationships in the U.S. has jumped by 29 percent, from 14 million in 2007 to 18 million in 2016.1) For many adults, cohabitation is not a just a precursor to marriage, but even more a substitute for marriage.2) However, cohabiting unions inherently differ from marital unions and tend to be of a poorer quality.

1. Relationship Stability and Closeness

Roles and expectations in cohabiting relationships tend to be ambiguous, therefore contributing to conflict.3) Cohabiting couples reported lower happiness and fairness when compared to married and re-married couples.4) According to the National Survey of Families and Households, cohabiters are 25 percent more likely to report relationship instability, and, correspondingly, more likely to report depression.5) According to a RAND analysis of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, cohabiting couples were less likely to consolidate resources, had less intimacy, and reported a weaker relationship commitment.6) Cohabiting men were especially less certain about and less committed to their relationship than their female partners.7) This lack of stability is particularly harmful for children.8)

Percent Not Completely Committed

2. Violence

Women in cohabiting relationships are more likely than married or dating women to be the victims of violence or to perpetrate violence.9) Domestic violence in cohabiting unions tends to increase as the duration of the union increases.10)

1) U.S. Census Burea Table AD-3 and Pew Research Center analysis of 2007 and 2016 Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/06/number-of-u-s-adults-cohabiting-with-a-partner-continues-to-rise-especially-among-those-50-and-older/.
2) Pollard, Michael, and Katherine Mullan Harris, “Cohabitation and Marriage Intensity: Consolidation, Intimacy, and Commitment,” RAND Corporation Working Paper (2013), available at https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/WR1000/WR1001/RAND_WR1001.pdf.
3) Cherlin, Andrew J., “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 66, no. 4 (2004): 848-861.
4) Skinner, Kevin B., Stephen J. Bahr, D. Russell Crane, and Vaughn RA Call., “Cohabitation, Marriage, and Remarriage: A Comparison of Relationship Quality Over Time,” Journal of Family Issues 23, no. 1 (2002): 74-90.
5) Brown, Susan L, “The Effect of Union Type on Psychological Well-Being: Depression Among Cohabitors versus Marrieds,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior (2000): 241-255.
6) Pollard, Michael, and Katherine Mullan Harris, “Cohabitation and Marriage Intensity: Consolidation, Intimacy, and Commitment” RAND Corporation Working Paper Series (2013), available at https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/WR1000/WR1001/RAND_WR1001.pdf.
7) Pollard, Michael, and Katherine Mullan Harris, “Cohabitation and Marriage Intensity: Consolidation, Intimacy, and Commitment” RAND Corporation Working Paper Series (2013) available at https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/WR1000/WR1001/RAND_WR1001.pdf.
8) DeRose, Laurie, Mark Lyons-Amos, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Gloria Huarcaya, “The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe,”Social Trends Institute (2017), available at http://worldfamilymap.ifstudies.org/2017/files/WFM-2017-FullReport.pdf.
9) Brown, Susan L., and Jennifer Roebuck Bulanda, “Relationship Violence in Young Adulthood: A Comparison of Daters, Cohabitors, and Marrieds,” Social Science Research 37, no. 1 (2008): 73-87.
10) Kenney, Catherine, and Sara McLanahan, “Are Cohabiting Relationships More Violent than Marriage?” Unpublished manuscript, Princeton University: Office of Population Research (2001).