The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Marital Bliss Outshines Cohabitation

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

A generation ago, few dared to suggest that shacking up was anything like holy matrimony. Today, however, increased public disregard for marriage dovetails with a fascination with cohabitation. Yet the research continues to show that marriage remains superior to cohabitation, even in progressive Europe. Indeed, scholars there have established that married persons not only report significantly higher levels of “relationship satisfaction” but also are less likely to have considered breaking up than their cohabiting peers, even cohabitants who are planning to marry.

Using data from the first wave (2003–07) of the Generations and Gender Survey, researchers associated with Statistics Norway and Erasmus University in Rotterdam discovered key differences between the two living arrangements in their study of 42,000 married or cohabiting adults, ages 18 to 55, in eight European countries. In their initial round of tests, they found that cohabitants without plans to marry reported lower levels of relationship satisfaction, while cohabitants with plans to marry their current lover had higher levels of satisfaction, than respondents who were married. The latter correlation, however, can be misleading. The mean difference, the researchers note, was small, yielding a low effect size. More important, in the full statistical model with a wide range of controls, both types of cohabitants registered significantly lower levels of relationship satisfaction than did married individuals (p < 0.001 for those with no intent to marry; p < 0.01 for those with intent to marry).

Cohabitants in the eight countries were also more likely to have considered dissolving their relationship in the previous year than were married respondents, a pattern that was robust for both types of cohabitants and even stronger for those without nuptial plans (p < 0.001 vs. p < 0.01).

While the researchers found this “cohabitation gap” in every country they studied, the relationship-quality gap was smaller in countries where cohabitation is more prevalent (Norway, France, and the Netherlands) and larger in countries where the practice is less prevalent (Russia, Romania, and Germany). In all eight of the countries studied, cohabitants with no plans to marry were more likely than their married peers to have considered splitting up. What is more, in six of the eight countries, even cohabitants who were planning to wed were more likely to have considered splitting up than their married peers.

Ironically, the researchers seem more taken with these modest variations between countries than with the glaring differences separating cohabiting Europeans from married Europeans. So while conceding “that marriage and cohabitation continue to be diverse across Europe,” they curiously imagine that the disparities separating marriage from cohabitation might disappear “if cohabitation continues to spread and becomes a normative experience across Europe.”

These scholars are certainly free to hope for such a social future. However, their own data would clearly justify a recommendation that Europeans rediscover matrimony, a social relationship that fosters higher levels of happiness and stability, and reject cohabitation, a social arrangement that delivers less favorable outcomes. The failure of scholars like this trio to recognize this reality only illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of twenty-first century sociology.

(Kenneth Aarskaug Wiik, Renske Keizer, and Trude Lappegard, “Relationship Quality in Marital and Cohabiting Unions Across Europe,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74 [June 2012]: 389–98.)