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June 14, 2010 Print

How Healthy are Cohabiting Relationships?

by Jenny Tyree

Do cohabiting relationships provide the same benefits as marriage? Research indicates there are substantial differences between the two.

There is a convincing body of research indicating cohabiting relationships are far less healthy than marital relationships in some very important measures. Researchers Michael Newcomb and P.M. Bentler report:

Cohabiters experienced significantly more difficulty in their marriages with adultery, alcohol, drugs, and independence than couples who had not cohabited. Apparently this makes marriage preceded by cohabitation more prone to problems often associated with other deviant lifestyles – for example, use of drugs and alcohol, more permissive sexual relationships, and an abhorrence of dependence – than marriages not preceded by cohabitation.1

Jan Stets, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the nature of cohabiting relationships, indicates “cohabiting couples, compared to married couples have less healthy relationships. They have lower relationship quality, lower stability and a higher level of disagreements.”2

Let us look at the some of the specific ways cohabiting relationships prove unhealthy for those who choose to live together outside the protective harbor of marriage.

Domestic Violence

The Family Violence Research Program at the University of New Hampshire, the nation’s leading institution studying domestic violence, finds that, “cohabiters are much more violent than marrieds.” Specifically, the overall rate of violence for cohabiting couples is twice as high as for married couples and the overall rate for “severe” violence is nearly five times as high.3

Given the findings of the scientific literature, sociologists conclude,

It is difficult to argue that cohabiters resemble married people.

The Journal of Family Violence explains the following regarding the most common relationship between batterer and victim:

The most frequently cited relationship was cohabitation with close to one half (48 percent) of the couples living together. The lowest rate was found among married couples (19 percent). The divorced and separated held the middle ranking (27.3 percent).4

Jan Stets, in her research into cohabitation and violence, found that “aggression is at least twice as common among cohabitors as it is among married partners.” Nearly 14 percent of cohabitors admit to hitting, shoving or throwing things at their partner in the past year, compared to only 5 percent of married people.

This held true, even when controlling for factors as education, age, occupation and income.5

Some falsely contend that research shows higher rates of domestic violence in cohabiting relationships because women in married relationships are less likely to report violent acts committed against them. First, these studies control for such factors and still show significantly higher levels of violence among cohabitors. Second, Canadian and U.S. studies both found that women in cohabiting relationships are about nine times more likely to be killed by their live in partner than are women who are married to their partners.6 You can’t hide a homicide.

As one scholar concludes, “regardless of methodology…cohabitors engage in more violence than spouses.”7

Contentment and Depression

Jan Stets found that “cohabitors are also more likely to exhibit depression and drunkenness than married couples.”8

One of the most respected studies in the field of psychiatry, conducted by the National Institutes of Mental Health, found that women in cohabiting relationships had rates of depression nearly 5 times higher than married women, second only to women who were twice divorced.9 Additionally, cohabiting individuals were more than twice as likely to suffer from any mental illness than married people.10

Much of this depression could be linked to greater feelings of insecurity in cohabiting relationships. Research shows that,

compared withh married respondents and adjusted for duration and age differences, cohabitors are almost twice as likely to report that they have thought their relationship was in trouble in the past year…and in three of every four cohabiting relationships, at least one partner reports having thought the relationship was in trouble.11

Women are most likely to have such feelings.


Numerous studies have consistently shown that cohabitors have much higher levels of infidelity than married couples.12 Specifically, research done at the University of California – Irvine indicates,

the odds of a recent infidelity were more than twice as high for cohabitors than for married persons.

This held true even when researchers controlled for issues such as permissive values about extramarital sexuality.13 They conclude that the commitment of the marital relationship served as a protection against infidelity.

The National Sex Survey reports that cohabiting men are nearly four times more likely than husbands to cheat on their partner in the past year and while women are generally more faithful than men, cohabiting women are eight times more likely than wives to cheat.14

A study published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family looking at the sexual faithfulness of cohabitors finds,

that cohabiting women are more similar to dating women than they are to married women” and “cohabitation before marriage is still associated with reduced sexual exclusivity after marriage.15


Research strongly and consistently indicates that marriage is a wealth building institution. Married people typically earn and save more than their unmarried counterparts.16 And it is not just the joining of resources and energies that creates this financial benefit, but the permanence of marriage itself.

Research conducted at Purdue University finds that wealth accumulation in cohabiting situations is far below what it typically is in marriage, with cohabitors more closely resembling the earnings and savings of singles.17 The National Marriage Project reports that while the poverty rate for children living in married households is about 6 percent, it is 31 percent for children in cohabiting homes, much close to the 45 percent for children living in single parent families.18

Cohabitors don’t resemble married couples

Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher report,

during their twenties, young men and women who lived together showed very high and increasing rates of health-destroying and dangerous behaviors.19

These include heavy smoking, drinking, carousing and illegal drug use.

Given the findings of the scientific literature, sociologists conclude, “It is difficult to argue that cohabiters resemble married people.”20

It is interesting that the very thing that couples believe could help strengthen their relationship is the thing that could serve to undermine the health of the relationship and their own well being. The commitment of marriage and the clarity and strength it brings to a relationship makes a significant difference in the lives of people.

Written by Glenn T. Stanton,  director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. Glenn is also author of Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society (Pinon Press), and more recently, My Crazy, Imperfect Christian Family (NavPress, 2004). He also co-authored the book, Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).

1Michael D. Newcomb and P.M. Bentler, “Assessment of Personality and Demographic Aspects of Cohabitation and Marital Success,” Journal of Personality Assessment 44 (1980): 11-24.
2Jan E. Stets, “The Link Between Past and Present Intimate Relationships,” Journal of Family Issues 14 (1993): 236-260.
3Kersti Yllo and Murray A. Straus, “Interpersonal Violence Among Married and Cohabiting Couples,” Family Relations 30 (1981): 339-347.
4Albert R. Roberts, “Psychological Characteristics of Batterers: A Study of 234 Men Charged with Domestic Violence Offenses,” Journal of Family Violence 2 (1987): 81-93.
5Jan E. Stets, “Cohabiting and Marital Aggression: The Role of Social Isolation,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 669-680.
6Todd K. Shackelford, “Cohabitation, Marriage and Murder,” Aggressive Behavior 27 (2001): 284-291; Margo Wilson, M. Daly and C. Wright, Uxoricide in Canada: Demographic Risk Pattern,” Canadian Journal of Criminology 35 (1993): 263-291.
7Nicky Ali Jackson, “Observational Experiences of Intrapersonal Conflict and Teenage Victimizaiton: A Comparative Study among Spouses and Cohabitors,” Journal of Family Violence 11 (1996): 191-203.
8Stets, 1991, p. 674.
9Lee Robins and Darrel Regier, Psychiatric Disorders in America: The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 64.
10Robins and Regier, 1991, p. 334.
11Larry L. Bumpass, James A. Sweet, and Andrew Cherlin, “The Role of Cohabitation in Declining Rates of Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 913-927.
12John D. Cunningham and John K. Antill, “Cohabitation and Marriage: Retrospective and Predictive Comparisons,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 11 (1994): 77-94;
13Judith Treas and Deirdre Giesen, “Sexual Fidelity Among Married and Cohabiting Americans,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (2000): 48-60.
14Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, (New York: Doubleday 2000), p. 93.
15Renata Forste and Koray Tanfer, “Sexual Exclusivity Among Dating, Cohabiting, and Married Women,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (1996): 33-47.
16Waite and Gallagher, 2000, pp. 110-123.
17Janet Wilmoth and Gregor Koso, “Does Marital History Matter? Marital Status and Wealth Outcomes Among Preretirement Adults,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 64 (2002): 254-268.
18David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation Before Marriage,” The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002, p. 9.
19Waite and Gallagher, 2000, pp. 63-64.
20Frances Goldscheider, Arland Thornton and Linda Young-DeMarco, “A Portrait of the Nest Leaving Process in Early Adulthood,” Demography 30 (1993): 683-699.