In the United States, living together instead of marrying has become the norm for couples – half of young adults aged 20-40 are cohabiting instead of getting married. Cohabitation has increased nearly 1,000 percent since 1980, and the marriage rate has dropped more than 40 percent since 1960.
Some see substituting living together for marriage as an insignificant shift in family “structure.” Those who are better informed realize that the shift has disastrous ramifications for the individuals involved, as well as for society and public policy.
The faulty reasoning leading young adults to make such a poor choice must be exposed. Here are four myths surrounding the shift.
Myth #1: Living together is good way to “test the water.”
Many couples say that they want to live together to see if they are compatible, not realizing that cohabitation is more a preparation for divorce than a way to strengthen the likelihood of a successful marriage — the divorce rates of women who cohabit are nearly 80 percent higher than those who do not. In fact, studies indicate that cohabiting couples have lower marital quality and increased risk of divorce. Further, cohabiting relationships tend to be fragile and relatively short in duration; less than half of cohabiting relationships last five or more years. Typically, they last about 18 months.
Myth #2: Couples don’t really need that “piece of paper.”
A major problem with cohabitation is that it is a tentative arrangement that lacks stability; no one can depend upon the relationship — not the partners, not the children, not the community, nor the society. Such relationships contribute little to those inside and certainly little to those outside the arrangement. Sometimes couples choose to live together as a substitute for marriage, indicating that, in case the relationship goes sour, they can avoid the trouble, expense and emotional trauma of a divorce. With such a weak bond between the two parties, there is little likelihood that they will work through their problems or that they will maintain the relationship under pressure.
Myth #3: Cohabiting relationships usually lead to marriage.
During the 1970s, about 60 percent of cohabiting couples married each other within three years, but this proportion has since declined to less than 40 percent. While women today still tend to expect that “cohabitation will lead to marriage,” numerous studies of college students have found that men typically cohabit simply because it is “convenient.” In fact, there is general agreement among scholars that living together before marriage puts women at a distinct disadvantage in terms of “power.” A college professor described a survey that he conducted over a period of years in his marriage classes. He asked guys who were living with a girl, point blank, “Are you going to marry the girl that you’re living with?” The overwhelming response, he reports, was “NO!” When he asked the girls if they were going to marry the guy they were living with, their response was, “Oh, yes; we love each other and we are learning how to be together.”
Myth #4: Cohabiting relationships are more egalitarian than marriage.
It is common knowledge that women and children suffer more poverty after a cohabiting relationship breaks up, but it’s not so well understood that there is typically an economic imbalance in favor of the man within such relationships, too. While couples who live together say that they plan to share expenses equally, more often than not the women support the men. Studies show that women typically contribute more than 70 percent of the income in a cohabiting relationship. Likewise, the women tend to do more of the cleaning, cooking and laundry. If they are students, as is often the case, and facing economic or time constraints that require a reduction in class load, it is almost invariably the woman, not the man, who drops a class.
A mass of sociological evidence shows that cohabitation is an inferior alternative to the married, intact, two-parent, husband-and-wife family. Increasingly, the myths of living together without marriage are like a mirror shattered by the force of the facts that expose the reality of cohabitation.
Janice Shaw Crouse, an authority on cohabitation research, is Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute.