Over the last two decades there has been a steady increase in the number of couples choosing to live together before marriage, and many of them expect to make a commitment to each other. The catch is that a large number of them decide not to marry. The nagging question becomes: Does marriage really make a difference in relationship quality over time?
The Census Bureau reports that the percentage of cohabiting adults ages 25 to 34 increased from 12 percent a decade ago to 15 percent in 2018. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, living together has become commonplace. Among currently married adults, a whopping 67 percent say they have lived with either their current partner or someone else before they tied the knot. In 1978, however, marriage was more common, with 59 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds married, compared to only 30 percent today.
With the dramatic increase in couples who live together, one might believe that cohabitation is becoming more like marriage (or at least a step toward it). If you think that, you aren't alone. Plenty of researchers across the globe have surmised that over time, cohabitation would become more like marriage with all of its benefits. Interestingly though, the latest research released by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University indicates that might not be the case.
Researchers analyzed the results of a December 2018 YouGov "iFidelity Survey" of 2,000 American adults. The data continue to confirm key differences in marriage and cohabiting relationships. They even found categorical differences between marriage and cohabitation on three relationship factors in particular.
First, married men and women are more likely than couples who live together to report satisfaction with their relationship. After controlling for education, relationship duration and age, married women (54 percent) and married men (49 percent) were more likely to report being "very happy" in their relationship compared to cohabiting adults.
Second, married adults are more likely to report higher levels of relationship commitment. Forty-six percent of married men and women were in the top relationship commitment group, compared to just over 30 percent of cohabiting partners. This finding is consistent with other research that links cohabiting relationships with lower commitment levels.
Third, married adults are more likely to report higher levels of relationship stability than those who live together without the commitment of marriage. When asked how likely respondents thought their relationship would continue, 54 percent of married adults were in the top perceived relationship stability group, compared to only 28 percent of cohabiting adults.
Married relationships are much less likely to break up than cohabiting ones. Even in places like Europe, where cohabitation has long been an accepted practice, studies consistently show that married couples experience more stability than couples who live together.
Marriage has many other benefits for men, women and children in addition to commitment, satisfaction and stability, and there's plenty of research to prove it. Whether adults are looking for financial benefits, better physical and emotional health, longevity or a more satisfying sex life, the evidence shows that marriage offers some things that cohabitation does not.
If you are looking for a committed, highly satisfying and stable relationship, the research strongly indicates that cohabitation is likely not the best route. Before you decide to move in together, do your homework and decide if that road will take you where you want to go.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.