The Marriage Problem: Why Many Are Choosing Cohabitation Instead

There are plenty of health benefits to marriage that those just living with a partner don't have, but we're afraid of the possibility of collapse.

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Marriage is a big commitment, there's no doubt about it. It's natural to be a little nervous before jumping in. But the trends and recent studies suggest that more people today seem not only anxious about the prospect of marriage, they are shunning it. Of the various ways in which one can forge a family (marriage, cohabitation, or having a child without being married), cohabitation has become the most common.

One reason for this increased interest in cohabitation over marriage may not be the fear of the union itself, so much as a concern for the possibility of its collapse. In other words, it may be the looming prospect of divorce that's driving more people to choose the question "Will you move in with me?" over "Will you marry me?"

At the same time, research continues to show that marriage has measurable benefits, both mental and physical over cohabitation. This is particularly true as one ages. Since it doesn't seem as though the marriage rate will turn around any time soon, we have to wonder how to reconcile the fact that young people are declining to marry while older people are reaping its benefits.


Young people voice a number of concerns about getting married, and these concerns may drive them to cohabitate rather than marry. In fact, when quizzed about the benefits they see in living together vs. getting married, people who opt for cohabitation over marriage tend to cite the fear of divorce as the central reason not to get married.

We've known for a number of years that young people have concerns about their ability to maintain in a successful marriage. For example, among high school seniors in the late '90s, about 40 percent felt that if they did marry, they were not convinced that they would stay married to the same person throughout their whole lifetime.

Similarly, among adults, many people choose cohabitation as a way to test-drive the relationship before getting married. Others fear marriage in a larger sense, and opt to live together instead of tying the knot at all. Even people who have no personal experience with divorce (say, of their parents or friends) are concerned about it happening to them.

So why are they worried? "That may be because there are so many high profile stories about divorce -- the Kim Kardashians, and J. Lo," says Sharon Sassler, associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University. Sassler studies people's attitudes toward marriage and divorce.

What also doesn't help is the media's constant repetition of the statistic that one out of two marriages is destined to fail, she says, since this statistic is inaccurate: Divorce rates have been declining over the last 20 years. "It seems that the contentious nature of how relationships are portrayed worry today's young adults," Sassler says. How the media may affect our perceptions of marriage has not been worked out, but given the fact that it's the unhappy rather than the happy endings that are typically brought to our attention, it seems possible that this may have something to do with our changing beliefs about marriage itself.

Fear of Fallout: Economic to Emotional

No one embraces the idea of divorce, but until recently, fear of divorce was not generally a deterrent to marrying. What has changed? Have celebrity break-ups really had an impact? People fear divorce for different reasons -- psychological, emotional, and economic -- and whichever reason resonates with them can be enough to keep them from getting married at all.

Sassler's own recent work has found that some people worry largely about the emotional turmoil that could result from divorce. They feel the potential pitfalls of divorce make them question whether marriage is worth it. People said the legal and financial stickiness of divorce was a "hassle," and that made them shy away from marriage. In other words, in many of the participants' minds, the benefits of marriage were simply not enough to counter the potential psychological and financial pain of divorce.

To these people cohabitation offers similar benefits to marriage without the potential pain of divorce. "If you're just living together, and if one of you decides they want to leave..." said one participant, "you can leave and it will just be OK ... whereas if you're married you've got to go through lawyers and attorneys, and depending on the type of situation it is it can be an ugly divorce." Though cohabitation may be less legally tricky to end, whether it offers the same lifelong benefits as marriage in other important ways -- emotional and physical -- is still under investigation.

Man, Woman, Rich, Poor: Patterns in How We View Marriage

Concerns about divorce are also reflected in who is likely to feel the potential cost of ending a marriage most. Working-class people are twice as likely to raise concerns about marriage being difficult to extricate oneself from, and women are particularly apt to feel this way. They are also more likely to cite the legal and financial difficulties associated with divorce, rather than emotional or social, compared to middle-class people. Indeed it may be more difficult to extricate oneself from a marriage when one's salary is lower, and this concern may be more likely for women.

Today it's the middle-class and people with more education who are getting married more frequently -- and staying married. As Sassler says, "that is a change, since highly educated women used to be less likely to be married than women with less than a college degree."

The changing role of men in the workplace may contribute to their preference for cohabitation over marriage when it exists. "What has changed over the past four decades," says Sassler, "has been men's ability to assume or play the role of primary provider. Their wages have fallen, they are less likely than women to have a college degree, and there are more alternatives to marriage (like cohabitation)." For men, avoiding marriage may free them of some of the responsibilities and financial pressures that have historically come along with marriage.

The bottom line is that both sexes, and particularly people who are less financially stable, are more reluctant to get married than they were a few decades ago. There are very real hardships associated with divorce, and the current economic climate makes them scarier than they might be in easier times.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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