Marriage vs. Cohabitation Rates in the U.S.[1]

During the last five decades, marriage rates have steadily declined while cohabitation rates have exponentially increased. Americans have become less likely to marry. From 1970 to 2010, the marriage rate declined more than 50 percent (figure on the left above). Between 1960 and 2010, the number of unmarried couples in America increased more than 17-fold (figure on the right above). More than 60 percent of first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago.[2]

Equally shocking is the growing acceptance of cohabitation, even among Catholics. This week, the Pew Research Center published a study on Marriage and Cohabitation in the U.S. Only 14% percent of those surveyed believe that it is never acceptable for two unmarried adults in a romantic relationship to live together. About half (48%) of people surveyed say that couples who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to have a successful marriage. About six-in-ten (59%) say that cohabitating couples can raise children as successfully as married couples. Surprisingly, the study found that about three-quarters of Catholics (74%) say it is acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together even if they do not plan to get married.

Perception does not equal reality.

The favorable views toward cohabitation are sharply contrasted with the devastating reality of cohabitation on the individuals who enter these relationships and their offspring.

In the book Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples, psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons states that during the past 40 years of clinical experience, he has found the following causes of cohabitation:

  • Profound selfishness with distaste for sacrificial giving
  • Absence of loyalty in loving relationships
  • Desire to dominate
  • Acceptance of contraception and of the use of another person as a sexual object
  • Pornography use
  • Ignorance about the Sacrament of Marriage
  • Financial fears of not being able to provide for a family
  • A distorted notion of freedom and responsibility
  • Fear of divorce and, consequently, commitment
  • Lack of faith and trust in the Lord with the challenges of life.[3]

Fitzgibbons attributes these fears to the retreat from marriage and the decision to cohabitate, which does not require a complete commitment. In a study by Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, 41 percent of cohabitating men reported that “they are not ‘completely committed’ to their live-in girlfriends.”[4] A paper published by sociologists Michael Pollard and Kathleen Mullan Harris reports that “52 percent of cohabitating men and 39 percent of cohabitating women believe ‘almost certain’ that their relationship is not permanent.”[5]

Fitzgibbons says “the rapid increase of cohabitation has led to widespread cultural acceptance of the practice” with many people believing “that cohabitation is psychologically healthy, prepares young adults for marriage, and helps couples to weed out negative relationships before making a lifelong marital commitment.”[6]

Cohabitation is not good marriage preparation.

Frankly, the “harsh reality is that these low-commitment, high-autonomy relationships are not a psychologically healthy way to prepare for marriage.”[7] Fitzgibbons cites the work of David Popenoe, former director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture, regarding the risks of cohabitation:

  • Living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after marriage
  • Living together outside of marriage increases the risk of domestic violence for women and risk of physical and sexual abuse for children
  • Unmarried couples have lower levels of happiness and well-being than married couples.[8]

“An intense romantic, sexual relationship,” says Fitzgibbons, “with the use of contraception…can impair the ability to evaluate objectively the personality and the compatibility of another person. Sexual activity can supplant the needed conversations about beliefs, values, and goals that are so necessary for making a decision about one’s future spouse.”[9] We find this to be an all too common issue among cohabiting couples preparing for marriage. The hard work of really getting to know each other has not occurred when the sexual aspect of the relationship is center stage.

The harm done by cohabitation has been widely documented.

Fitzgibbons cites a 2013 study which found that the duration of first cohabitation was only 22 months with nearly 20 percent of women giving birth within the first year.[10] In his clinical experience, Fitzgibbons has seen a high incident of depression in both men and women which “most often relates to the realization that their significant other has or had no desire for a permanent, lifelong commitment and children.”[11] Fitzgibbons indicates that studies “have shown that cohabitating couples experience less relationship satisfaction than married individuals do.”[12] This dissatisfaction in the cohabitating relationship is the likely cause of infidelity at a rate twice that of married couples.[13] Fitzgibbons reports “there is an even darker side to cohabitation: women in cohabitating relationships are more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than married women, and they are nine times more likely to be killed by their partner than married women are.”[14]

In addition to these issues, Fitzgibbons reports that “cohabitating couples have a diminished likelihood of being happily married later.”[15] He says, “The overwhelming majority of studies show that cohabitation before marriage is associated with poorer odds of stability and happiness in marriage.”[16] In addition, he says, “Cohabitation before marriage is associated with lower marital satisfaction, dedication and confidence as well as increased negative communication and a higher divorce rate.”[17] One study found a 50-percent increase in the risk of divorce for couples that cohabitated before marriage.[18]

Fitzgibbons says “no small number of Catholic female singles report anxiety, panic episodes, sadness, and anger after the ending of a cohabitating relationship of one or two years’ duration.”[19] He cites an insight of Saint John Paul II: “A ‘marital’ sexual relationship outside the framework of marriage is always objectively a wrong done to the woman.”[20]

Fitzgibbons reports that the children of cohabitating couples, according to a study by the American College of Pediatricians, “are at an increasing risk for premature birth; school failure; lower education; more poverty during childhood and lower income as adults; more incarceration and behavior problems; single parenthood; medical neglect and chronic health problems, both medical and psychiatric; more substance, alcohol, and tobacco abuse; and more child abuse.”[21]

There is a wide divide between the pubic acceptance of cohabitation and its damaging effects on the individuals that enter into these relationships and on any children created from these unions. Marriage is associated with higher life expectancy, satisfaction, and happiness, as well as better mental health, personal growth, and financial outcomes. “When entered into fully, marriage provides the unconditional, lifelong love that every person needs and desires.”[22]

Our children and friends that are in cohabitating relationships deserve an introduction to the beauty, goodness, and truth of God’s plan for human sexuality and marriage. God is the creator of marriage and He alone knows best what will ultimately lead us to true love and fulfillment.

[Sexuality] is realized in a true human way only if it is an integral part of love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death…The only “place” in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage.[23] St. John Paul II

[1] State of Our Unions, Social Trends of Marital Health & Well Being: Trends of the Past Five Decades, internet: http://www.stateofourunions.org/2011/social_indicators.php#marriage (accessed November 7, 2019).

[2] Sheila Kennedy and Larry Bumpass, Cohabitation and Children’s Living Arrangements: New Estimates from the United States, Demographic Research 19 (2008): 1663–92.

[3] Richard P. Fitzgibbons, M.D., Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 247.

[4] W. Bradford Wilcox, “Men and Women Often Expect Different Things When They Move in Together”, Atlantic, July 8, 2013, internet: https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/07/men-and-women-often-expect-different-things-when-they-move-in-together/277571/ (accessed November 8, 2019).

[5] RAND Labor & Population, Cohabitation and Marriage Intensity: Consolidation, Intimacy, and Commitment, internet: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/WR1000/WR1001/RAND_WR1001.pdf (accessed November 8, 2019).

[6] Fitzgibbons, 248.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Should We live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage, 2nd. ed. (Piscataway, N.J.: National Marriage Project, 2002), internet: http://nationalmarriageproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/ShouldWeLiveTogether.pdf (accessed November 8, 2019).

[9] Fitzgibbons, 260.

[10] C.E. Coen, K. Daniels, and W.D. Mosher, “First Premarital Cohabitation in the United States: 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth”, National Health Statistics Reports 64, (April 2013); 1-14.

[11] Fitzgibbons, 249.

[12] Susan L. Brown, “The Effects of Union Type on Psychological Well-Being: Depression among Cohabitators versus Marrieds”, Journal of Health and Social Behavior 41, no. 3 (2000); 247.

[13] W.D. Moser, A. Chandra, and J. Jones, “Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002”, Advanced Data (September 15, 2005); 1-55.

[14] T.K. Shackelford, “Cohabitation, Marriage, and Murder: Women Killing by Male Romantic Partners”, Aggressive Behavior 27, no. 4 (2001); 284-291.

[15] Fitzgibbons, 250.

[16] Scott M. Stanley, Galena Kline Rhoades, and Howard J. Markman, “Sliding versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect”, Family Relations 55, no. 4 (October 2006); 499-509.

[17] Galena Kline Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley, and Howard J. Markman, “The Pre-Engagement Cohabitation Effect: A Replication and Extension of Previous Findings”, Journal of Family Psychology 23, no. 1 (February 2009); 107-111.

[18] Claire M. Kamp Dash, Catherine L. Cohan, and Paul R. Amato, “The Relationship between Cohabitation and Martial Quality and Stability: Change across Cohorts?”, Journal of Marriage and Family 65, no. 3 (August 2003); 539-549.

[19] Fitzgibbons, 251.

[20] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) (November 22, 1981), §81, internet: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html (accessed November 8, 2019).

[21] Patricia Lee June, “Cohabitation: Effects on Cohabitation and Other Non-Marital Sexual Activity on Children, Part 2”, American College of Pediatricians, July 2014, internet: https://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/societal-issues/cohabitation-part-2-of-2 (accessed November 8, 2019).

[22] Fitzgibbons, 255.

[23] Familiaris Consortio, §11.