Cohabiting, civil unions, and marriage
In 2011, about 5 million people lived together in intimate relationships outside of marriage, up from 500,000 in the 1970s.
“Forget undying love or shared hopes and dreams—my boyfriend and I moved in together, a year after meeting, because of a potential subway strike,” says Nancy Wartik. In her article in Psychology Today, Wartik explores the situation and looks at recent studies that may indicate that living together before marriage might have its down side.
Some couples cohabit as a “trial period” before marrying; others choose to live together without marrying. Civil unions or domestic partner registries are an option in some states and cities for same-sex couples; some heterosexual couples are choosing this over marriage.
Is there any real difference between living together and officially tying the knot?
The research suggests there may be. As Wartik reports, “Couples who move in together before marriage have up to two times the odds of divorce, as compared with couples who marry before living together. Moreover, married couples who have lived together before exchanging vows tend to have poorer-quality marriages than couples who moved in after the wedding. Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication, and lower levels of commitment.”
Researchers suggest that the reason for this difference is that people who live together first tend to bring more risk factors into their relationships. It is these risk factors—not the cohabitation itself—that creates difficulties in these relationships. People with more positive views about relationships tend to move ahead and get married.
What if marriage is not an option for you?
Researchers are beginning to study different legal options available to same-sex couples. Prior to removing a ban on same-sex marriage, Vermont offered civil unions long enough for researchers to study them over a period of years. In one study reported by the American Psychological Association (APA), researchers compared married heterosexual couples, same-sex couples in civil unions, and same-sex couples not in a civil union over a period of three years. They found equal levels of commitment and relationship stability between couples in a civil union and married couples.
On the other hand, same-sex couples who were not in a civil union were more likely to have ended their relationship. According to the APA’s report, “This suggests that the protections afforded by a legalized relationship may impact same-sex relationships, something the study's authors plan to follow up on in future research.”
It may be that formal community and cultural support, as well as the act of making a public, binding commitment, lead to longer-lasting, more stable relationships.