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Cohabitation: a Recipe for Marital Ruin

Shown to Put Partners and Kids at Risk

OTTAWA, OCT. 2, 2005 (Zenit) - Living together is an increasingly popular option in many countries. But it can involve high social and emotional costs, says a new study, "Cohabitation and Marriage: How Are They Related?" The Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family published the study Sept. 17.

The author, Anne-Marie Ambert, brings together the results of hundreds of research papers that examined the social, emotional and financial effects of cohabitation and marriage on men, women, children and society.

Cohabitation, the study observes, is often seen as entailing fewer responsibilities at a legal or financial level, and less fidelity than marriage. In recent years, however, de facto couples have sought and gained rights similar to those of married couples, in areas such as property, health insurance, pension plans, and child support.

Ambert notes that in Canada the marriage rate steeply declined in the 1990s, particularly in the province of Quebec. The United States has also seen marriage rates drop, though not as much as in Canada.

In both countries, the number of cohabiting couples has risen sharply. In 2000, more than 4.1 million heterosexual couples in the United States and 1.3 million in Canada cohabited. In 2001, 16% of all Canadian couples and 8.2% of all American couples were cohabiting. In Quebec the level reached 30%, the same proportion as in Sweden. Excluding Quebec, 11.7% of Canadian couples cohabit.

Divorce rates

The study cites data showing that cohabitation, in fact, leads to higher divorce rates. Ambert cites the Canadian General Social Survey, which found, in the 20-to-30 age group, 63% of women whose first relationship had been cohabitational had separated by 1995. This compared to 33% of women who had married first.

Trying to find the causes behind this phenomenon, Ambert observes that some individuals choose cohabitation because it does not require sexual fidelity. Evidence indicates that the experience of a less committed cohabitation shapes subsequent marital behavior, she notes.

"Some couples continue to live their marriage through the perspective of the insecurity, lack of pooling of resources, low commitment level, and even lack of fidelity of their prior cohabitation," the study comments. Moreover, some studies have indicated that married couples who previously lived together are less faithful in their sexual lives. And a lack of fidelity is known to be a factor leading to higher rates of marriage breakdown.

Other studies show that couples who had cohabited had less positive problem-solving behaviors and were, on average, less supportive of each other than those who had not cohabited. As well, researchers have found that couples who had cohabited before marriage had much higher rates of premarital violence than those who had not lived together. This premarital violence then leads to higher rates of marital violence, another factor related to divorce.

Ambert also notes that those who cohabit are generally more approving of divorce as a solution to marital problems. In addition, couples who cohabit are less religious than those who marry without prior cohabitation. On this point there are several studies that indicate a correlation between religiosity and marital happiness as well as stability.

She also opines that a propensity to cohabit soon after starting a romantic relationship leads to a pattern of instability. People who go through a series of de facto relationships are more likely contract quick marriages, which are harder to remain faithful to.


Another risk factor with cohabitation is its unstable nature. More than half of all these unions dissolve within five years, according to one study cited by Ambert. In Quebec the level of dissolution of de facto relationships is lower than in other provinces, but they still break up at a significantly higher rate than marriages, she noted.

And the trend seems to be toward greater instability. In the 1970s, about 60% of couples living together went on to marry their partner within three years. By the early 1990s this figure dropped to about 35%.

In more recent years, a large proportion of young people began living together soon after the onset of dating, with little intention of remaining together permanently, and even less of getting married. Breaking up then becomes much more difficult than if couples had simply continued to date each other.

But it's not just the couple involved who face problems. In 2001, 8.2% of Canadian children ages 14 and younger lived in common-law households, excluding Quebec where 29% lived in such households. In the United States an estimated 40% of all children will live with their single mother (never-married or divorced) and her boyfriend at some point before their 16th birthday.

Ambert commented that in spite of increasing social acceptance of cohabitation, there is little direct information on the effects for children. A hint of the disadvantages does emerge, however, from research comparing cohabitants to daters and to married persons.

Revolving door

For children, cohabitation means a greater risk of living within an unstable family structure, especially when their mother cohabits with a man who is not their father. Some families even face a "revolving door" situation, with a series of partners over the years. Ambert notes that one study found that children living with their mother and cohabiting boyfriend had lower school performance and more behavioral problems.

When it comes to family finances, Ambert observes that when a single mother begins to cohabit, poverty can be reduced by as much as 30%. While this is of financial benefit to children in the short term, the downside is that the male partner in a de facto relationship normally earns less than a married man. Moreover, any economic advantage from cohabitation is often short-term because of the fragility of these unions.

Further problems resulting from the instability of cohabitation affect the mother's capacity to give adequate attention to children, and contribute to general neglect. The mother's partner is not as likely to compensate for this deficiency because his attachment to the children is often low.

Physical abuse is also more likely and young children in cohabiting relationships are more likely to be injured or killed by their mother's live-in boyfriend than in biological families. Girls, for their part, are at higher risk of being sexually abused.

"Commitment and stability are at the core of children's needs; yet, in a great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent," observes Ambert.

Many people, Ambert notes toward the end of her study, maintain that marriage is merely a matter of lifestyle choice and that it is equivalent to cohabitation. "The research literature does not support this view at this point," she writes. Instead, studies demonstrate that marriage has many benefits for both spouses and children. A conclusion public lawmakers might want to take into consideration.


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