Marriage is antiquated and on its ways out, and cohabitation is the relationship of the future, the relationally avant-garde would have us believe. Take a recent headline, for example: “Living together may be mentally healthier than marriage,” it claims, citing a study published in the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

While provocative, such headlines are often misleading. The actual findings require a bit more careful handling.

So what does the study actually find? First, the study is based on a nationally representative sample of nearly 2,800 adults who were younger than age 50 and single when the survey initially interviewed them in 1987–1988; they were re-interviewed in 1992–1994.

During this four- to six-year period, some respondents remained single, some married, others lived together without marrying, and yet others married after having lived together. Among those who married or cohabited, many also experienced breakups.

The new study analyzes changes in respondents’ self-reported happiness (as measured by the question “Taking things all together, how would you say things are these days?”), depressive symptoms, self-reported health (“Compared with other people your age, how would you describe your health?”), and self esteem (“I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others,” “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself,” and “I am able to do thing as well as other people”). The study also looks at changes in respondents’ relationships with parents and friends.

Essentially, the study compares changes in these outcomes among the four groups of respondents—(1) those who remained single, (2) those who married, (3) those who cohabited then married, and (4) those who cohabited without marrying—and tries to isolate changes in the outcomes associated with marriage and cohabitation during the four- to six-year period of the study.

In the analysis that excludes respondents who experienced breakups, the study finds that, relative to married people, cohabitors tended to report higher levels of happiness (although married people reported, on average, the highest levels of happiness as singles at the beginning of the study) and self-esteem. However, married individuals tended to report better health relative to cohabitors.

Taken as such, these findings present a misleading picture of cohabitation. First, these findings are based on the analysis that excludes respondents who had broken up; thus, the instability of cohabitation is ignored. Excluding those who had experienced breakups drops the majority (60 percent) of cohabiting respondents but only 19 percent of married individuals. That is, the resultant sample of cohabiting couples is not representative of the average cohabitation experience.

Cohabitation tends to be short-lived. Data indicate that only 13–16 percent of first cohabiting relationships remain intact after five years (about 65 percent will end in marriage and the remainder will have broken up). However, even living together with one’s eventual spouse could diminish the stability of the subsequent marriage, particularly for men. The same data suggest that, for men, the probability of making it to their tenth anniversary drops by nearly 10 percent if the couples live together prior to marrying.

When the study includes respondents who had experienced breakups, cohabitors no longer experienced a greater increase in their level of happiness relative to married couples, but the self-esteem and health differences remain.

In addition, in the analysis that includes everyone, among those who had cohabited, respondents who eventually married had lower levels of depression than those who stayed unmarried. Thus, on the whole, it would be more accurate to say that marriage is mentally and physically healthier than living together.

In part, these findings may be a reflection of how the study frames marriage and cohabitation. Tellingly, the researchers hypothesize:

If cohabitation offers some of the social support and commitment of marriage with fewer institutional supports, then marriage confers advantages over cohabitation. If the institutional supports of marriage are offset by increased obligations and a loss of flexibility, then cohabitation confers advantages over marriage [emphasis added].

It’s interesting to note that greater mutual obligations and less flexibility are considered disadvantages in an enduring, committed intimate relationship. Underlying these hypotheses is the notion that the pursuit of individual fulfillment lies at the heart of such a relationship. It prioritizes a “me” mentality over concerns about “us.”

In this framework, marriage appears all too, well, committed: It binds the spouses, for better or for worse, to one another. Cohabitation, with its flexibility and looser structure, frees the couple from that “we” commitment. Not surprisingly, then, the study would find that cohabitation may be associated with the more self-oriented outcomes.