Investments in Marriage and Cohabitation: The Role of Legal and Interpersonal Commitment

By Poortman, Anne-Rigt; Mills, Melinda | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Investments in Marriage and Cohabitation: The Role of Legal and Interpersonal Commitment


Poortman, Anne-Rigt, Mills, Melinda, Journal of Marriage and Family


Cohabiters have been shown to invest less in their relationship than married couples. This study investigated the role of legal and interpersonal commitment by examining heterogeneity within marital and cohabiting unions. Going beyond the dichotomy of cohabitation versus marriage, different union types were distinguished by their level of legal and interpersonal commitment, followed by an assessment of their association with joint investments (specialization, having children together, purchasing a home). Using panel data from The Netherlands (N = 2,362), the authors found considerable heterogeneity within marital and cohabiting unions. Joint investments increased as interpersonal commitment increased, with cohabiters without marriage plans investing the least and couples who directly married without prior cohabitation investing the most. The relationship between investments and legal union types was less straightforward and often challenged expectations, prompting the authors to elaborate on alternative explanations for their findings.

Key Words: cohabitation, commitment, marriage.

Despite rising levels of cohabitation in many Western societies, the relationship of cohabiters appears to be markedly different (Smock, 2000). Compared with married couples, cohabiters are more likely to engage in an equal division of household labor, keep finances separate, and remain childless (Heimdal & Houseknecht, 2003; Kiernan, 2001; South & Spitze, 1994). Less joint investment in cohabiting unions leads to fewer interdependencies and, presumably, greater instability (Brines & Joyner, 1999).

Why do cohabiters invest less in their relationship? A central argument is that there is selective entry into cohabitation, with progressive individuals more likely to cohabit and adopt more individualized arrangements (Smock, 2000). A second, related claim is that fewer joint investments, such as having children or purchasing a house, represent differences in commitment. The nature of commitment in marriage differs from cohabitation in two respects. First, marriage implies more legal commitment, because it entails a legally enforceable contract protecting against the risks of joint investments in the event of union dissolution (Brines & Joyner, 1999). Second, marriage implies higher interpersonal commitment in that it signals a long-term horizon (Brines & Joyner; Cherlin, 2000; Kline Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2006; Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004). The enhanced legal and interpersonal commitment inherent in marriage renders it less risky and encourages individuals to invest. Cohabiters, conversely, are more cautious about investment because of the inherent uncertainty of their relationship and the absence of laws to protect them against the risks of such investments.

The majority of research distinguishes between marriage and cohabitation, often ignoring the considerable variation within these groups (Seltzer, 2004). In an increasing number of countries, however, cohabiters can opt for a legal contract, which protects them against the risks of joint investments. Married couples may likewise choose a less protective contract or may be willing to commit only after a trial period of cohabitation. Investments are therefore likely to vary within subgroups of cohabiters and married couples, depending on their legal contract and levels of interpersonal commitment.

In this study, we transcended the marriage - cohabitation dichotomy to study heterogeneity within marriage and cohabitation with respect to legal and interpersonal commitment. We achieved this aim by developing typologies of union types that vary in legal and interpersonal commitment within marriage and cohabitation and then relating these typologies to the level of joint investments. Our central premise is that if legal and interpersonal commitment indeed separate marriage from cohabitation, these differences should be reflected within these groups. …

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