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 

Summer
2012

Wedlock: The Gold Standard


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


Following the lead of some researchers, agencies that compile census data, particularly those in Western Europe and at the United Nations, are increasingly blurring the lines between couples that shack up together in low-class fashion and those who follow middle-class norms of lawful wedlock. If there were no differences between the two choices, the deliberate attempt to treat them identically might be justified. But a study in the Netherlands finds that, yes, even in a progressive haven that no longer officially deems holy matrimony all that special—except perhaps for homosexuals—big differences still distinguish married couples from cohabiting couples.

Using data from the first two waves of the Netherlands Kinship Panel Study, waves conducted in 2002–04 and 2006–07, sociologists from Utrecht University and the University of Groningen documented “considerable heterogeneity” between 1,840 marital and cohabiting couples, even as they also found differences between couples within each category. The location of their study is significant, as Dutch cohabitants can register their unions with the state and enter into contractual agreements, which makes their relationships legally more like matrimony. Nonetheless, in exploring how legal and interpersonal commitments affect couples’ investment in labor specialization at home, procreation, and homeownership, the two researchers uncover commitment patterns that should give pause to progressives who presume that cohabitation is merely a modern version of marriage.

Their complex study, involving both cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis, establishes that Dutch married couples—in particular, those that enter marriage directly without prior cohabitation—demonstrate the highest levels of commitment to their respective unions, while cohabitants without wedding plans demonstrate the least.

The decisive indicator of clear differences between the married and cohabiting is children, as they represent the most intensive commitment or investment that any couple makes. Married couples in the study were considerably more likely to have offspring—and to have more offspring—than cohabiting couples. In fact, cohabitants with plans to marry were the least of all couple types to have children, which the researchers interpreted to mean that even the most serious of cohabitants in their country still believe that children belong in a married-couple household.

Moreover, couples that married without prior cohabitation exhibited the highest division of labor at home while cohabitants the least. Married couples also were significantly more likely to own a house.

Their findings forced the scholars to rethink their prior assumption that quasi-marital legal commitments would necessarily prod couples to invest more in, or commit more to, their relationships, finding that cohabitation contracts and prenuptial agreements do not necessarily generate greater interdependency between a man and a woman, as does marriage plain and simple. This should not have surprised the Dutch researchers, as these newer legal constructs seem to hold a couple back from the realities of true wedlock, not encourage them toward total commitment, a dynamic they do not acknowledge. That, in a nutshell, confirms why classic matrimony without the fine print needs to be preserved in a day when elites seek to dilute it.

(Anne-Rigt Poorman and Melinda Mills, “Investments in Marriage and Cohabitation: The Role of Legal and Interpersonal Commitment,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74 [April 2012]: 357–76.)

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