The Marriage Problem: Why Many Are Choosing Cohabitation Instead

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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.

NO ONE WANTS A KIM KARDASHIAN MARRIAGE

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.

MARRIAGE HAS BIG BENEFITS FOR BODY AND MIND

Despite the fact that young people may not be getting married with the same frequency they were, marriage still offers benefits to one's physical and mental health. As a general rule of thumb, married people appear to have better health and live longer than unmarried people. And the research keeps coming in to support its benefits, particularly as we age.

Even people who remarry after being divorced or widowed have better physical and mental health than their counterparts who remain single (though it's still not as good as those married for the long term). Divorce does seem to take a toll on people's psychological and physical health, and the longer one is divorced, the greater the negative effects on health.

Like divorce, the loss of a spouse also affects overall mental and physical health. Widowers who remain single have more mental health problems than those who find a new mate. Several mental health issues -- depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and "emotional blunting," in which a person experiences reduced emotional reactions -- are all more pronounced in men who do not develop another intimate relationship after the death of their spouse, compared to men who do find a new partner. Therefore, staying married or remarrying after the end of a first marriage seems to offer physical and mental health benefits throughout one's life.

Does Cohabitation Measure up to Marriage?

If being married is good for health, can we say the same of cohabitation? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. Jamila Bookwala, a gerontologist who studies health, marriage, and aging at Lafayette University, says that there's a fundamental difference between marriage and cohabitation.

"The benefits of marriage don't seem to translate to cohabitation," Bookwala says. "People who cohabitate do not enjoy the same health benefits that come with marriage. So we have to ask, what is it about the marital union that brings these benefits? The answer is still unclear."

Part of the explanation may lie in differences in the quality of the relationships of marrieds vs. cohabiters. Relationship quality is generally higher among married people than among cohabitors, Sassler tells us -- "and marital relationships are more enduring than cohabitations." Both of these factors could explain the difference between marriage and cohabitating when it comes to health and mental health benefits.

Of course, marriage is not a free pass to good health. The quality of a marriage has a lot to with the health benefits the relationship may bring. For example, if a person's spouse is highly critical, that person is likely to suffer from more chronic illnesses, report more symptoms of poor health, and have more physical disabilities than those whose spouses are more positive. "It's the negative traits in one's spouse that really affect a person's physical health," Bookwala says. "On the flip-side is mental health. A close marriage is great for mental health."

Our Attitudes Change As the Years Roll Along

It's unclear why relationship quality would be higher in marriage than in cohabitation -- perhaps it has something to do with the implied level of commitment that comes along with marriage. Once this is clear, older married people just don't sweat the small stuff as much as younger people do -- and this could be what explains the health benefits of marriage they enjoy. "With older individuals," Bookwala says, "you don't see such a great impact of the basic negative marital processes [disagreements, poor communication, and so on] on mental health. Negative marital processes have a bigger effect on the mental health of the younger people, and positive marital processes are much more important to the older people."

In other words, when you're older you enjoy the positive parts of the relationship, and let the negative ones roll off your back. On the other hand, young people at the beginning of their relationships tend to focus on the negative aspects, which feeds their anxieties about marriage (and its potential end).

The differences across the ages may have something to do with the perception of time being endless (when one is young) vs. finite (when one is older). This major difference can make people view -- and value -- social interactions quite differently. Whatever the explanation, it seems that our own changing attitudes toward marriage -- what we highlight in our own minds -- may have a lot to do with the benefits we reap from it.

TAKING A LESSON FROM THOSE WITH EXPERIENCE

There are risks involved in taking any plunge in life. And there are clearly certain risks to marriage (namely divorce). But the overwhelming evidence suggests that if it is a satisfying one, the pros generally outweigh the cons.

It's easy to focus on the negatives, since the unhappy and dramatic endings are so often what are spotlighted in the media. But as in other walks of life, shifting focus away from the risks and back to the benefits may be key. This shift in perspective -- in which the negatives become less important than the positives -- seems to occur naturally as we age, which may be why older people find so many physical and mental benefits to marriage. So perhaps the trick is to try to change our focus earlier in life, so that we can enjoy the same benefits without all the anxieties from a younger age.

Relationships vary widely and deciding to marry or not is a personal choice. But given that strong marriages seem to offer a host of benefits, avoiding marriage because of the prospect of divorce alone may be just the kind of negative thinking that can undermine a relationship. Though it may be easier said than done, taking the plunge if one is interested in doing so -- and taking it seriously but not too seriously -- may be worth it in the long run.

Image: wavebreakmedia ltd/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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