Cohabitation & Domestic Partnerships Research Paper Starter

Cohabitation & Domestic Partnerships

(Research Starters)

Cohabitation is a common choice for people in the 21st century, even while many are morally or religiously opposed to the idea. The trend is not limited to the United States nor is it limited to younger individuals; yet in the U.S. it is legally limited to hetero-sexual couples except in California and Massachusetts. Domestic partnerships and civil unions are more commonly accepted in the U.S. and offer recognition of committed partners, in some cases allocating spousal rights to partners. However, many of those rights, as well as those offered to cohabitating heterosexuals, are weak in comparison to those offered to married couples.

Family & Relationships


With about fifty percent of all marriages ending in divorce, it seems reasonable that if couples live together before marrying the marriage might last longer. However, the concept of cohabitation remains controversial, and many people are opposed to cohabitation on the basis of moral or religious reasons. Yet, whether or not one agrees with the concept, it is not a passing fad. Indeed, according to the US Census Bureau, over three million people were unmarried but living together in 1991 (cited in Kammeyer, et al, 1994, p. 375). That number rose to almost 8 million in 2012 (US Census Bureau, 2013). Some of those people have married and divorced; others have separated and moved on to different relationships; others still are living happily either as married couples or as those who simply chose not to marry. And the remaining group is cohabitating because they cannot marry; such is the case for same-sex couples in states that have not legalized same-sex marriage.

A study from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1995 (2002b) showed that almost three-quarters of the people who got married in 2001 did so after beginning their lives together by cohabitating (cited in Weston, Qu & Vaus, 2003, p. 4). In 2013, a study published in the US National Health Statistics Reports reported that 48 percent of women interviewed between 2006-10 had cohabited with a partner before marriage (Copen, Daniels, & Mosher, 2013). And, depending on which research you believe, cohabitation is either good or really bad for the future of the relationship. Some information about cohabitation is readily available while other data is not. For example, it is commonly reported that many couples who live together before marrying end up divorced shortly after the official event. What is less known is that if a married couple (who cohabitated first) remains together longer than seven years or if a man and woman only cohabitate with the person they later marry, their chance of having a successful marriage is the same as for those people who experience direct marriages, that is they don't live together first (Stritof & Stritof, 2008).

Marriage Success after Cohabitation

Jay Teachman, Professor of Sociology at Western Washington University, has conducted several research studies attempting to identify whether or not premarital cohabitation is linked to marriage dissolution, as many researchers have indicated. To his credit, Professor Teachman is willing to note that his own prior research--and that of others focusing on the same topic--has been limited. In his 2003 article, Teachman describes the two explanations provided by researchers in the past to describe the difference between cohabitators and non-cohabitors:

The first thesis … is selectivity … A number of authors have argued that people who cohabit before marriage possess different characteristics compared with those who do not cohabit, and these characteristics are tied positively to the risk of divorce. The characteristics … include less commitment to marriage as a permanent institution, acceptance of divorce as an appropriate means to end a poor relationship, an emphasis on individualism, poor relationship skills, and so on … The second thesis… focuses on the experience of cohabitation itself …That is, it is argued that there is a causal effect of having lived with someone outside of marriage that cannot otherwise be attributed to differences on other, preexisting characteristics (Teachman, 2003, p. 445).

According to Teachman, there's just "something" about living with someone else that makes people not survive marriage in later years. Or so researchers thought. One of Teachman's research endeavors (2003) studied different characteristics, allowing that the previous explanations were limited in scope. Instead of focusing on selectivity or causation, Teachman looked at the correlation between premarital intercourse and premarital cohabitation to explain marriage success. Using statistics collected from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) in 1995, Teachman examined survey responses from over 6,500 US women who had been married for the first time between the years 1970 and 1995.

Dr. Teachman notes that "neither premarital intercourse nor premarital cohabitation, if limited to a woman's husband, is linked to the subsequent risk of marital disruption" (2003). When examined independently, premarital intercourse does not increase the likelihood of divorce if a woman marries the man with whom she has had the premarital intercourse. The same is true for cohabitation; if a woman marries the man with whom she has previously lived, she has a good chance of marriage stability. Conversely, the more sexual relationships or cohabitation experiences a woman has--that do not lead to marriage--the more likely she is to experience an unsuccessful marriage when she does take that official step. To clarify, " [i] t is only women who have more than one intimate premarital relationship who have an elevated risk of marital disruption" (Teachman, 2003, p. 454).

The 1995 version of NSFG did not collect data on men, and that is why Teachman's research focused on the relationships of women. The professor is quick to note that he believes men would offer responses similar to those reported by women. In addition, Teachman notes another limitation:

[T]his study does not provide any information that allows us to better determine whether the effect of having multiple premarital relationships is based on differences on preexisting characteristics that are tied to the risk of divorce or whether having multiple relationships generates environments where relationship skills or attitudes and values about the permanency of marriage are somehow altered (p. 454).

It may be entirely impossible to determine these things. It could be that preliminary relationships create the characteristics that later manifest into those common with marriage discontent. Nevertheless, many people chose the indirect approach.

Some Demographics of Cohabitation

According to Kammeyer, Ritzer & Yetman (1994), that approach is not limited to the United States. In Sweden, it is estimated that almost all couples who get married live together first (p. 375). In addition, in light of the numerous couples (both same-sex and opposite-sex) cohabitating in England and Wales, a law commission addressed in a report the legal ramifications of a separating cohabiting couple. Probert (2007, Conclusion) notes that while "the proposed reforms would not confer on cohabitants the same rights to which married couples or civil partners are entitled," the incidence of cohabitation is high enough that the commission agreed it had to create some kind of legislation in light of a relationship dissolving.

Cohabitation is not a situation limited to young people either. Calasanti & Kiecolt (2007) note that many people over the age of sixty-five are considering the concept as well; however, cohabitation is a trend practiced by those who have lost a spouse to death more so than for those who have experienced divorce (p. 13). "In 2005, among people age 65 and older, cohabitors constituted 1 percent of men and .5 percent of women" (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005, as cited in Calasanti & Kiecolt, 2007, p. 15). While seemingly small, those numbers constituted 367,870 and 183,935 people, respectively--over a half of a million people. While more common than in the past, Brown, Lee & Bulanda (2006) note that cohabitating is not necessarily good for people over sixty-five: "Cohabitors are less likely than remarried people to own a home and to have health insurance. They also score lower on social relationships, as measured by religiousness and having friends and kin nearby, and they consume more alcohol" (as cited in Calasanti & Kiecolt, 2007, p. 10).

What is disconcerting to some researchers and those who disapprove of cohabitation is that the current popularity of cohabitation may be long-lasting and that rather than get married, people across the world will simply live together instead (Kammeyer, et al, 1994, p. 375). Furthermore, people who do get married do so at later ages when compared to statistics of the 1950s (Ahlburg & DeVita, 1992, as cited in Kammeyer, et al, 1994, p. 375). While this latter statistic may resemble a negative tendency, it may actually be positive. As people age, they are more likely to become emotionally mature, financially stable, and universally independent when compared to those who marry at younger ages, like many couples in the 1970s and 1980s a time when one financial provider per family could support the entire household.

Further Insights

Domestic Partnerships & the Law

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into legislation the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. It also points out that while each state can create its own law regarding marriages, those that do not make their own laws do not have to enforce the independent laws of the states that do. In other words, even in states where same-sex marriage is legal, any couple married in those states is not considered married when they are in any one of the other forty-eight states in America. Many people believe that discrimination against gay couples was written into federal law in this way.

Table 1: What's the Difference?

BENEFIT MARRIAGE CIVIL UNIONS NO MARITAL STATUS AVAILABLE Portability of rights Automatically recognized in all 50 states Recognition not guaranteed outside the state that grants it Some of the documents named below must be carried at all times to ensure they are enforced Medical Decisions/ Emergencies A spouse or family member may make decisions for an incompetent or disabled person unless contrary written instructions exist, and can generally visit their partner in the hospital Partner's right to visitation and medical decision-making may not be recognized out of state A health care proxy is required to convey decision-making authority Gift and Property Transfer tax May make unlimited transfers and gifts to each other without paying taxes Large gifts and transfers are subject to federal tax Must pay federal tax and state tax in many states for large gifts and transfers Inheritance Automatic right to inherit without a will; inheritance not taxed at the state or federal level Not taxed at the state level; fully taxed at the federal level; not automatic outside granting state No automatic inheritance; must be designated in will and is fully taxable; without a will, relationship is invisible Income tax Can file taxes jointly, which works to the advantage of couples when one earns much more than the other, but creates a penalty when their incomes are similar Can file only state returns jointly; federal returns must be filed as single Must file individually Social Security and Veteran Death Benefits Married people receive Social Security and veteran benefit payments upon the death of a spouse None None Divorce Divorce provides legal structure for couples to dissolve their marriages and divide property equitably No such system can be guaranteed for the dissolution of civil unions outside of the state where the union is granted Relationship contract dictating property division in...

(The entire section is 5253 words.)