Willard F. Jabusch
Cohabiting couples lack both specialization and commitment in their relationships.

Every parish priest and university chaplain knows the story. The young couple visits their pastor to make arrangements for their wedding. The pastor begins to ask the questions on the prenuptial questionnaire. The young man gives his address and later the young woman. It appears they live at the same address and in the same apartment. Like so many others, they have been living together, perhaps for some time. There is, however, no embarrassment or apology, not the slightest hint of shame. Cohabitation has become so common that it seems it is the rare couple, at least in the big cities, who have not been living together before marriage. In fact, the common wisdom is that this is helpful for a future wedded life, since both man and woman will certainly get to know each other’s follies and foibles, virtues and vices as they have breakfast and supper together every day, share a bathroom, take out the garbage and vacuum the rug. It is, supposedly, a sort of dress rehearsal for married life.

But is it true that you can improve your chances of having a successful marriage by living together to see what it’s like? Not according to two recent studies, one by a sociology professor, Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, and another by the National Opinion Research Center, a University of Chicago research facility. According to Professor Waite, cohabiting couples lack both specialization and commitment in their relationships. And although these couples are abundant in today’s society, they are also more prone to make less money and are more likely to abuse one another physically than are married couples.

Cohabitation isn’t marriage, says Professor Waite, and cohabitation people don’t act the same way as married people. They don’t have the same characteristics; they don’t get the same benefits; and they don’t get to pay the same costs.

Unlike Scandinavian countries, where cohabiting relationships tend to be long-term, Waite has observed that in the United States they are usually short-term and lead to a lack of committed marriages. Thomas W. Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center survey, also notes that cohabitation remains in the United States a short-term phenomenon, but that it is, both before the first marriage and between marriages, the general rule. He remarks that the average duration of cohabitation is a little over a year, and these temporary relationships usually end in break-ups or marriage.

Statistics show that almost two-thirds of Americans choose to cohabit before getting married. According to Census Bureau figures, four million heterosexual couples are currently involved in these relationships, eight times more than in 1970.

One of the things people get out of marriage is insurance, Waite remarks. If you think of the Christian marriage vowin sickness and in healthit seems that people will stay together even if one gets M.S. or cancer or gets disabled. It’s insurance, and insurance is expensive. Emotionally, it’s important in that if you get sick, there’s someone who will take care of you.

When cohabitation is short-term, as in the United States, there is a lack of what might be called specialization. Waite points out that in marriage you can say, I like to cook and you like to clean, and I’ll get to be a terrific cook because I’ll never have to clean. Two people together produce more. They can have a high quality life because they have two specialists, whereas people who live alone don’t specialize. Also, according to Professor Waite, cohabiting couples do not pool their money, and those with separate incomes must pay separate taxes. They lack the shared financial resources upon which married couples rely.

In her article The Negative Effects of Cohabitation, written for The Responsive Community, an academic journal, she writes that partners in the typical cohabitation relationship are also less likely to connect with their mate’s family and to take care of their mate’s children. The parenting role of a cohabiting partner toward the child(ren) of the other person is extremely vaguely defined. The non-parent partnerthe man, in the substantial majority of caseshas no explicit legal, financial, supervisory, or custodial rights or responsibilities regarding the child of his partner. Since many religions disapprove of cohabitation, it is not surprising that cohabiting couples are frequently not involved with any church.

The cohabiting man and woman are also more likely to lead separate lives and are less likely to have a monogamous sexual relationship than those who are married. Waite observes: Four percent of married women had a secondary sex partner, compared to 20 percent of cohabiting women and 18 percent of dating women.

Her study indicates that to preserve their exit option, they are not really working in a partnership. They are being two separate peopleit is trading off freedom and low levels of commitment for fewer benefits than you get from commitment. It also seems that many unmarried mothers remain in cohabiting relationships because they fear the domestic violence of marriage. Yet the study reports that married women are half as likely as women in cohabiting relationships to acknowledge physical abuse. When it comes to hitting, shoving, and throwing things,’ cohabiting couples are more than three times more likely than the married to say things that get far out of hand; people who live together are 1.8 times more likely to report violent arguments than married people.

Research at N.O.R.C. has shown, according to Smith, the surprising result that people who cohabit before marriage are more likely to divorce. A trial marriage that would allow people to pick a lifetime partner and therefore lead to a better marriage doesn’t work. Professor Waite attributes this to the non-committal attitude created during cohabitation. She says, There is sort of a myth that you can improve your chances of having a successful marriage by living together to see what it’s like, and there is no evidence at all that that helps people make a better decision; so it’s not a good reason for living with somebody. She points out that her findings do not apply to couples living together who are engaged. They are not planning an easy exit; they are planning to get married, they just have not done it yet. Since engaged couples are truly planning on spending the rest of their lives together, they are able to specialize and have fewer reasons for friction and distrust.

The full text of the study, a synthesis of Smith’s work during the past 10 years, will be published in her new book Strengthening American Marriage: A Communitarian Perspective (Rowman and Littlefield). Social scientists have studied the cohabiting relationship for some time, ever since they began to wonder if it is just marriage without the paper, or something else.

I think, says Linda Waite, we are pretty convinced that it is something else.

The Rev. Willard F. Jabusch is the director of Calvert House, the Catholic student center at the University of Chicago.