Family Fact of the Week: Dimming Aspirations in the Rise of Cohabitation

Collette Caprara /


Since 1960, the number of cohabiting couples in our nation has skyrocketed from 450,000 to more than 7.5 million. As a motivation to move into cohabitation, couples have cited spending more time together, the ability to combine their financial resources, and the opportunity to “test drive” their relationship, possibly avoiding a divorce in the future.

These sunny hopes are darkened by the clouds of reality. Current research has revealed that, on average, cohabiting couples have substantially fewer joint economic resources than their married counterparts and, regarding the quality of their relationship, tend to report lower levels of closeness, love, and satisfaction.

In addition, cohabiting partners have substantially lower levels of commitment to their partners than their married counterparts. The anticipation of the dissolution of the relationship among both cohabiting men and women is twice as high as that of their married counterparts, and cohabiting men are even less likely than women to expect that their relationship will last. Although women may view cohabitation as a stepping stone to marriage, men tend to see view it as a different and unrelated arrangement.

These low expectations and the failure to make a long-term commitment translate into the reality of relational dissolution: Cohabiting couples are more likely to separate, less likely to reconcile after a separation, and more likely to experience infidelity than married couples.

In fact, even the subsequent marriages of men and women who cohabited are less likely to survive: Compared with married couples who did not cohabitate, they tend to be less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce. As research has found, “sliding” rather than deciding to marry does not bode well for the longevity of a relationship, as “inertia” moves couples who otherwise would not have married to tie the knot.

Yet those who suffer most from the spike in cohabitation are the children of couples who enter into these uncommitted and unstable relationships—and this is no small number. An analysis of federal data and more than 250 peer-reviewed journal articles reveals that more than 40 percent of children in the country spend some portion of their lives in households with cohabiting parents before they are 12 years old, and 20 percent are born into such households.

Compared with peers who live in intact, married families, children in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from emotional, social, and behavioral problems and less likely to succeed academically. According to government data, they are also at least three times more likely to be abused physically, sexually, or emotionally.

In addition, children born to cohabiting couples are 170 percent more likely to experience a parental breakup than children born to married couples, and those unsettling transitions are linked to poor relationships with parents, behavioral and health problems, and school failure.

To stop the devastating rise of cohabitation, policymakers should pursue policies and programs that can promote and strengthen marriage and an intact family structure—the most stable and fulfilling relationship for couples and the safest, most nurturing environment for the next generation.