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 

Wedlock as Crime-Stopper, Cohabitation as Crime-Sustainer

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Criminologists have known for some time that marriage dampens criminal impulses. Now, with marriage rates depressed to historically low levels, progressive theorists are suggesting that, as the functional equivalent of wedlock, cohabitation suppresses crime in the same fashion. But empirical research can mean the death of a beautiful theory beneath the lethal weight of tawdry facts. In this case, the facts come embedded in a study recently completed by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan as well as Florida State, Pennsylvania State, and Bowling Green State Universities. This new study demonstrates conclusively that while marriage continues to depress criminality, cohabitation still does not, despite its unprecedented prevalence.

The authors of the new study seek to compare the contemporary effects of marriage and cohabitation on crime. They acknowledge that previous studies have shown that “marriage predicts reductions in several types of crime and in substance use.” However, they note that “since the 1970s, young adults have increasingly postponed marriage and their rates of cohabitation have more than doubled.” In this context, progressive theorists have argued that “cohabitation . . .  is [now] more functionally analogous to marriage and has more marriage-like effects on behavior.” The marriage-like effect of particular interest to the researchers in this instance is that of reducing crime and substance use.

To gauge the effects of both wedlock and cohabitation on crime, the researchers scrutinize data collected from almost sixteen thousand young men and women regularly surveyed from 1976 to 2010. Unsurprisingly, these data indicate that the crime-suppressing effects of wedlock have not changed over the decades. The researchers calculate that once the individuals in the sample married, “their variety of criminal offenses was reduced by 22%, their odds of frequent binge drinking were reduced by 71%, and their frequency of marijuana use was reduced by 32%.”  

In sharp contrast, the researchers conclude that, even in the most recent survey data, cohabitation was “not significantly associated with declines in criminal offending.” The only beneficial effects of cohabitation appear “limited to substance use outcomes and depended on engagement.” Among cohabiting couples who were engaged, the researchers do detect a “marriage-like decline in frequent binge drinking (reduced by 64%) and a weaker but significant decline in marijuana use (reduced by 16%).”

Though acknowledging some inconsistencies in the outcomes, the researchers recognize the overall pattern: “If marriage affects antisocial behavior by increasing responsibilities,” they write, “decreasing leisure time and time with friends, and changing identities and priorities, then our findings imply that cohabitation does not do these things, or at least does not do them to the same extent.” In other words, the overall research results “could mean that unlike marriage, cohabitation does not play a beneficial role in young adults’ antisocial behavior trajectories.”

Having adduced strong evidence that cohabitation—despite its unprecedented prevalence—still does not suppress crime in the way wedlock does, the researchers soberly underscore the “broader implications” of their findings for “the persistence of antisocial behavior well into early adulthood.” 

Progressive theorizing about cohabitation as the functional equivalent of wedlock now appears deeply erroneous—criminally erroneous.

(Sonja E. Siennick et al., “Partnership Transitions and Antisocial Behavior in Young Adulthood:  A Within-Person, Multi-Cohort Analysis,”Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 51.6 [2014]: 735-58.)