Cohabitation versus Marriage: A Comparison of Relationship Quality

By Brown, Susan L.; Booth, Alan | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 1996 | Go to article overview

Cohabitation versus Marriage: A Comparison of Relationship Quality


Brown, Susan L., Booth, Alan, Journal of Marriage and Family


Using data from the 1987-1988 National Survey of Families and Households, we evaluate the extent to which cohabitation is similar to marriage. The quality of recently formed cohabiting and marital relationships among Black and White Americans ages 19 to 48 is investigated in an effort to advance our understanding of the meaning of cohabitation relative to marriage. Controlling for relationship duration and demographic characteristics of the respondent, we find that cohabitors in general report poorer relationship quality than their married counterparts. However, cohabitors' marriage plans largely explain the difference in relationship quality of cohabitors and marrieds. The majority of cohabitors report plans to marry their partner, and these cohabitors are involved in unions that are not significantly different from marriages. In fact, cohabitors report more frequent interaction with their partners than do marrieds. The relationship quality of marrieds and cohabitors with plans to marry is affected in the same way by the presence of potential sources of stress such as biological children, children from past unions, and prior union experience.

Cohabitation is a complex family form. For about half of cohabitors, it is a relationship that lasts approximately 2 years and then ends, either through marriage or dissolution. For others, it is a precursor to marriage. And for one tenth of cohabitors, it is a long-term relationship that seldom ends in marriage (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). In the majority of cases, cohabitation shares many of the qualities of marriage. It involves sharing a residence and personal resources, excluding intimate relations with others, and, in a substantial number of cases, having a child. More than 10% of cohabitors experience the birth of a child while cohabiting, and about one quarter bring children from previous unions to their current cohabiting relationship (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991). Despite its similarity to marriage, we know almost nothing about the quality of cohabiting relationships compared with what we know about the quality of marital relations. In this article, we use data from the 1987-1988 National Survey of Families and Households to compare the relationship quality of cohabitors and marrieds and to determine which cohabitors are involved in unions that are qualitatively comparable to marriages. Additional analyses are performed to determine whether moderating variables, such as children and previous union experience, have similar effects on the relationship quality of cohabitors and marrieds.

The meaning of cohabitation is of particular relevance today because cohabitation has become an increasingly popular form of living. Whereas just 11% of marriages between 1965 and 1974 were preceded by cohabitation, between 1980 and 1984, 44% of all marriages involved at least one spouse who had cohabited (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). Nearly 50% of Americans in their 20s and 30s have cohabited (Bumpass et al., 1991). In 1994, there were 3.7 million cohabiting couples in the United States (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995).

Previous research on cohabitation has focused largely on the effects of premarital cohabitation on subsequent marital stability. Researchers also have debated the meaning of cohabitation relative to marriage and remaining single. Although some researchers (e.g., Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; Bumpass et al., 1991) have argued that cohabitation and marriage are highly similar, others (e.g., Rindfuss & VandenHeuvel, 1990) have argued that cohabitation is more like being single. This article examines the nature of cohabiting and marital relationships and assesses the extent to which the two are similar. Understanding the quality of the relationships in which cohabitors are involved is important not only because of the large and increasing number of people who cohabit, but also because, for a nontrivial proportion of cohabitors, it is a permanent living arrangement, a replacement for marriage.

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