March 2, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 11

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    Research looks at cohabitation’s negative effects

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Couples with no intention of marrying who decide to cohabit are forming unstable living arrangements that can have negative effects on their [linda waite] by gerald peskinemotional, financial and sometimes physical well-being, according to University researcher Linda Waite, Professor in Sociology.

    Waite also found that these social arrangements may cause serious problems for children raised in households headed by cohabiting couples.

    Waite, an expert on family life, studied census reports, the National Survey of Families and Households, the National Health and Social Life Survey and other data to appraise the costs and benefits of cohabitation. She found that men and women who cohabit are more likely than married people to experience partner abuse and infidelity and less likely to receive assistance from family members than married couples.

    “These tentative and uncommitted relationships are bound together by the ‘cohabitation deal’ rather than the ‘marriage bargain.’ But that deal has costs,” said Waite, author of “The Negative Effects of Cohabitation,” published in the current issue of the journal The Responsive Community. The “cohabitation deal,” she added, will have especially disappointing outcomes for people who expect it to deliver the same benefits the “marriage bargain” delivers. “People who cohabit often contend that marriage is just about a piece of paper. We’ve found, however, that there is quite a bit of difference between being married and living together,” she said.

    Her research showed that 16 percent of cohabiting women reported that arguments with their partners became physical during the past year, while only 5 percent of married women had similar experiences. Although surveys showed cohabiting couples expect their relationships to be faithful, the surveys also showed that 20 percent of cohabiting women reported they had secondary sex partners, while only 4 percent of married women reported they did, according to Waite.

    Cohabiting couples are disadvantaged financially with the lowest level of wealth among household types, comparable to families headed by a single mother. Intact, two-parent families and stepfamilies have the highest level of wealth.

    Waite also found the parenting role of a cohabiting partner toward children of the other person is vaguely defined, making cohabitation an unstable living arrangement for children. “The non-parent partner––the man in the substantial majority of cases––has no explicit legal, financial, supervisory or custodial rights or responsibilities regarding the children of his partner,” wrote Waite. “This ambiguity and lack of enforceable claims by either cohabiting partner or child makes investment in the relationship dangerous for both parties and makes ‘Mom’s boyfriend’ a weak and shifting base from which to discipline and guide children,” she continued.

    Despite its disadvantages, people increasingly are choosing cohabitation over marriage. The latest Census Bureau figures show that 4 million couples live together outside of marriage, eight times as many as in 1970.

    Waite found that two types of cohabitation arrangements exist: those in which the partners intend to marry and those in which they do not. Partners who cohabit with the intention of marrying share many of the characteristics of married people, she found. Those who cohabit without the intention of marrying often have short relationships with few benefits. Waite’s research also revealed that many of the people who choose cohabitation, particularly women with children, believe their partnerships will last.

    Her research revealed a variety of other differences between married and cohabiting couples. According to the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey, cohabiting couples have an average of about one additional sex act per month compared to married couples. But cohabiting men and women are less likely than those who are married to be monogamous, although virtually all cohabiting couples reported they expected their relationships to be sexually exclusive.

    Married women spend 14 more hours per week doing housework than do their husbands, while cohabiting women spend 10 more hours per week doing housework than their male partners. Because men in cohabiting relationships are less likely to support their partners financially than are married men, cohabiting women are not compensated for their housework the way married women are, Waite said.

    “The tentative, impermanent and socially unsupported nature of cohabitation impedes the ability of this type of partnership to deliver many of the benefits of marriage, as does the relatively separate lives typically pursued by cohabiting partners,” she explained.

    In marriages, partners often specialize their skills; one does house repairs, while the other handles finances, for instance. This specialization helps married couples accomplish more as a team than they would if they were working independently. In cohabiting arrangements, this specialization rarely takes place, however, and the arrangement does not achieve the same work efficiency marriage does, because the partners choose to act more as individuals, Waite said.

    Waite also wrote in her published paper that “marriage fosters certain behavioral changes––by both the couple and those around them––that cohabitation simply doesn’t encourage.” Family members are not likely to loan money to a relative in a cohabiting arrangement nor provide other kinds of support normally extended to a married family member.

    Additionally, the parents of people in cohabiting arrangements who become attached to children of their child’s cohabiting partner may see that relationship dissolve if the cohabitation is short-term.

    Marriage or the intent to marry, wrote Waite, makes that long-term commitment explicit and reduces the potential dissolution of relationships for families who incorporate a son- or daughter-in-law and stepchildren.