Like dating, the terminology of cohabiting is also interesting. Is it “living together,” “shacking up,” “living in sin,” “a test drive,” or “a trial run”? In recent years cohabitation has increased dramatically (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Today, cohabitation has become so

common that many sociologists regard it as a stage of courtship (Seltzer, 2000). More than half of first marriages in the early 1990s began with cohabitation (Bumpass & Lu,

2000) .

Forty percent of U. S. couples live together without being married (Allen, 2005), and typically the pattern is for young couples to live together as a prelude to marriage, and not instead of marriage (King & Scott, 2005; Cummins, 2002). But the United States still does not compare with Sweden, where 90% of married couples lived together before marriage, or Denmark, where 80% cohabit. In 2000, more than 5.2 million U. S. couples were cohabiting (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Compare this to the

430,0 couples living together in 1960 and the 2.8 million living together in 1990 (Benokraitis, 1993). Of these 5.2 million couples, 87% were male/female couples, 6% were male/male couples, and 6% were female/female couples (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 2000).

Cohabiting couples tend to differ from married couples in several ways. For exam­ple, 21% of females who live with their partner are 2 or more years older than their part­ner, but only 12% of wives are 2 or more years older than their husband (Fields & Casper, 2001). Most of the married couples are the same race, but cohabiting partners were twice as likely to be a different race than married couples.

There are advantages and disadvantages to cohabitation. Cohabitation allows cou­ples to learn more about each other and not be legally or economically bound. It allows a couple who love one another to become more mature and more financially stable if they do eventually marry. It can be more realistic than dating because it gives couples the opportunity to learn of their partners’ bad habits and idiosyncrasies.

Yet there are also problems. Parents and relatives may not support the union, and society as a whole tends not to recognize people who live together for purposes of health care, taxes, and the like. Also, partners may want different things out of living together, such as when one partner sees it taking the relationship to another level, whereas the other sees it as a way to have a more accessible sexual partner. People who live together may feel cut off from their friends and the couple can become too enmeshed in each other (Benokraitis, 1993).

Some people believe that when couples live together, they can smooth out the rough spots in their relationships and see whether they would be able to be happily married. Research indicates, however, that the reverse may be true. Half of all couples that live to­gether break up within a year or less (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Those who marry are at in­creased risk of divorce, and longer cohabitation has been found to be associated with higher likelihood of divorce (Cohan & Kleinbaum, 2002; Seltzer, 2000). The research has found that these problems are more common among non-Hispanic white women but not among non-Hispanic Mexican American or African American women (Phillips & Sweeney, 2005). Even in Sweden, couples who cohabited before marriage had almost an 80% higher rate of marital dissolution than those who did not (Benokraitis, 1993).

Why might couples who live together be less successful as marriage partners? Perhaps these couples develop as separate individuals during that time (because they are not married, they maintain their own “life” outside of the relationship), and this may lead to a higher risk for divorce (Seltzer, 2000). Without the legal commitment of mar­riage, couples may just be “playing house,” unprepared for the real problems of married couples. Also, most cohabiting couples do not get joint checkbooks, have expensive mortgages, and so on, and may not be prepared for the financial pressures of marriage (money fights are a major reason for divorce).

However, there are several possible shortcomings of the foregoing findings. It may not be that living together itself increases the chance of divorce, but that the type of people who are willing to live together are also the type who are more likely to divorce when marriage gets difficult. Couples who live together may feel that they would not be happy in a marriage; they may be more accepting of divorce; they may be less religious and less traditional in the first place; or they may be less committed in the beginning of the relationship. Because we do not know about the samples in the studies on cohabit­ing couples, it is difficult to generalize their findings. Some studies have found no corre­lation between living together and future marital disruption (Teachman, 2003).

A couple’s reasons for living together may indicate whether their marriage will be successful. The reasons a couple decides to live together may have a lot to do with whether or not the relationship survives marriage. If a couple lives together for eco­nomic reasons or because of timing (say they are planning to marry in the near future), this will generally result in a healthy marital relationship. However, complications arise when couples live together because they are nervous about committing to marriage or they want to “test” their relationship. Obviously, if they need to test a relationship to see whether it will work, they are not ready for marriage.

As of 2005, 13 states recognize common-law marriage, which means that if a cou­ple lives together for a certain number of years, they are considered married. Typically a couple must present themselves as a married couple (refer to each other as husband and wife and/or file a joint tax return). There are also cases of individuals who have success­fully sued partners they lived with for alimony or shared property (called palimony), claiming that their partner promised them marriage or lived together with them as though married. If the couple has a baby, of course, both partners are responsible for his or her upbringing, even if they separate afterward. So living together may entangle a couple in legal issues they did not anticipate.


common-law marriage

A marriage existing by mutual agreement be­tween a man and a woman, or by the fact of their cohabitation, without a civil or religious ceremony.



An allowance for support made under court or­der to a divorced person by the former spouse, usually the chief provider during the marriage.



An allowance for support made under court or­der and given usually by one person to his or her former lover or live-in companion after they have separated.




Cohabitation: Instead of, or on the Way to, Marriage?



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