Cohabitation on the Rise

Data Show the Inherent Problems

NEW YORK, NOV. 30, 2002 ( More couples are forgoing marriage for cohabitation. In 1960, for example, the U.S. Census Bureau counted fewer than 500,000 unmarried couples living together. But in 2000, the agency reported 4.7 million cohabiting households, the Washington Times noted Nov. 15.

The Times article commented on a study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Family Issues, showing that roughly a quarter of women who live with their boyfriends say they don’t expect to marry them. Pamela Smock and Wendy Manning, authors of the article, “First Comes Cohabitation and Then Comes Marriage?,” observed that social pressures for cohabitating couples to marry were stronger in the past. In the 1970s about 60% married within three years. In recent years only about a third of cohabiting couples marry within three years.

Other data published in study revealed that today more than half the couples who marry have lived together first, and about half of young women, aged 25 to 39, have lived with a man who wasn’t their husband.

In a Reuters interview published Nov. 21, Manning explained that cohabiting does not appear to be replacing marriage, for just as many Americans are marrying now as before. But, she noted, the age at which people are getting married has shown a steady rise. During this extra time before matrimony, people are living with people other than their future spouses, she noted.

Living together is also on the rise in Canada. 2001 census data showed married couples accounted for 70% of all families, down from 83% in 1981, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported Oct. 22. In that same 20-year period, the proportion of unmarried couples living together more than doubled, to 13.8% from 6%.

The trend toward cohabitation was strongest in Quebec. There, 508,500 common-law families accounted for 30% of all couple-headed families. Almost 29% of children were living with unmarried parents in Quebec, more than double the national average.

The number of common-law couples in Canada with children under age 25 is also increasing. In 2001, they accounted for 7% of all couples, compared with 2% two decades earlier.

In Italy, cohabitating couples have gone from 184,000 in 1996 to 344,000 today, according to a Nov. 26 report in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera. Even so, the increased number only accounts for around 2% of all couples, noted Anna Laura Zanatta, a demographer from the University of Rome. However, some 3 million Italians have lived together with someone at least once, in the period 1985 to 1999. And 14% of married couples admit to having tried out cohabitating before getting married.

Recipe for instability

In England, the proportion of single women in cohabiting relationships went from 13% in 1986 to 25% in 1999, according to data cited by Rebecca O’Neill in “Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family.” The study, published by Civitas last September, also noted that cohabitations tend to be fragile, with unions lasting an average of two years before being breaking up, or being converted to marriage. Of cohabitating couples who do not marry, only about 18% survive at least 10 years, compared with 75% of couples who marry.

O’Neill also observed that cohabitation is one of the main routes into lone parenthood. Between 15% and 25% of all single-parent families are created through the breakup of cohabitation.

A Nov. 18 article in the London Telegraph reinforced the point concerning the instability of cohabitation. It reported on a study by the Institute for Social Research, based on 10,000 women, ages 16 to 44. The statistics show that a third of cohabitating unions last less than a year, and only one in 10 lasts longer than five years. The report also pointed out some of the drawbacks of cohabitation, saying that women often get “caught in a limbo” and “don’t move forward” when they cohabit.

Then there is the effect of cohabitation on children. This was the subject of a report in the October issue of the U.S. magazine Population Today. The share of children born to cohabitating parents went from 6% to 11% in the period 1984 to 1994. The article reported on results published by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, comparing data from 1980-84 to 1990-94.

The article noted that, due to growing instability in households with children, about 40% of U.S. children will live with their unmarried mother and her boyfriend some time before their 16th birthday.

The amount of time children will spend with cohabitating parents can vary widely. Based on the 1990-94 data, children born to cohabitating parents are likely to spend 26% of their childhood with a single parent, 28% with cohabitating parents, and 46% of their time with married parents. By contrast, children born to married couples are likely to spend 84% of their childhood in a two-parent family, even though about one in three will experience divorce.

Women bear the brunt

William J. Bennett, in his 2001 book “The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family,” drew together a variety of data demonstrating the drawbacks of cohabitation.

Some people, noted Bennett, justify living together before marriage saying that it is a good opportunity to test out compatibility. But the facts speak otherwise: The chances of a subsequent divorce are almost double among those couples who cohabit before marrying.

And while some denounce marriage as being an institution that leads to violence against women and children, Bennett observed that living together outside of marriage actually increases the possibility of domestic violence. Cohabitation also increases the likelihood of depression and sexual unhappiness.

Bennett also said that among cohabitating couples, women suffer disproportionately more. Unmarried couples are less likely to pool their incomes, and since men often earn more than their partners, this hurts the women. Moreover, cohabitating relationships are prone to infidelity; twice as many cohabitating men as women are unfaithful in a given year. And when the cohabitation breaks down, women usually end up caring for any children — but without the legal protection that marriage affords.

John Paul II warned of the dangers of cohabitation in his 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. The Pope observed that many people try to justify what he termed “trial marriages.” He pointed out that it is unacceptable to carry out experiments with human beings, “whose dignity demands that they should be always and solely the term of a self-giving love without limitations of time or of any other circumstance.”

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