Most Americans Think Cohabitation Is Fine, But That's Not What Social Science Says

Peter Sprigg is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Federalist on December 2, 2019.

A nineteenth-century humorist once warned that a bigger problem than knowing little is “to know so many things that ain’t so.” Well, Americans know “many things that ain’t so” about cohabitation and marriage.

new Pew Research Center study shows Americans both cohabitate (“live with an unmarried partner”) and find cohabitation acceptable more than before. But other research shows this is unwise. Here is what the Pew Research Center found.

More young adults have cohabited than have married. Pew’s analysis in the summer of 2019 of the National Survey of Family Growth found that, for the first time ever, the percentage of American adults aged 18-44 who have ever cohabited with a partner (59 percent) exceeded the percentage of those who have ever married (50 percent).

It should be noted, however, that the current living arrangements of adults of all ages still show a strong preference for marriage: 53 percent of American adults are currently married, while only 7 percent of adults are currently cohabiting (although cohabitation has risen from only 3 percent in 1995). These findings may either reflect that many people cohabit first and then marry, or that cohabiting relationships are less stable and thus much shorter than marriages.

A majority of Americans (69 percent) say that “it is acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together even if they don’t plan to get married.” They may assume that they can decrease their chances of a bad marriage and increase their chances of a good one by giving the relationship a cohabitation “test run.”

Sixteen percent say cohabitation is acceptable only if the couple plans to get married. Just 14 percent hold a view consistent with a biblical sexual ethic, that cohabitation with an unmarried romantic partner outside of marriage is “never acceptable.”

This widespread approval of cohabitation may be the result of the public believing “things that ain’t so.” The Pew poll demonstrates that public holds some perceptions of cohabitation that are at odds with previous empirical research (not covered in the Pew report) on cohabitation outcomes. Here is what many Americans believe, contrasted with the reality shown from existing research.

A plurality of Americans believe cohabitating before marriage yields more successful unions. Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) believe that couples who live together before marriage “have a better chance of having a successful marriage.” This view is even more prevalent among young adults aged 18-29 (63 percent).

Another 38 percent of all Americans say cohabitation “doesn’t make much difference” on marital success. Only 13 percent of Americans believe cohabiting couples have “a worse chance” of having a successful marriage.

The reality: Couples who cohabitated before marriage are more likely to divorce. Cohabitation’s effect on marital success has been empirically tested, and the results are clear: couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to get divorced, not less.

2018 article published by the Institute for Family Studies said this “premarital cohabitation effect” is so well-known, “It has a long and storied history in family science.” Contrary to popular belief, cohabitation is not “practice” for marriage. Instead, it is “practice” for lacking commitment, keeping one’s options open, and focusing on the short-term rather than the long-term. Such attitudes are antithetical to a successful marriage and may increase the risk of marital failure.

Most Americans believe cohabitating couples raise children just as well as married couples. Pew also surveyed people’s opinions about cohabiting couples raising children, and 59 percent of Americans declared that cohabiting couples “can raise children just as well as married couples.” Again, the younger respondents were most likely to have a favorable view of cohabitation: among adults aged 18 to 49, 67 percent agreed cohabiting couples do just as well, while 32 percent said: “Married couples do a better job raising children.”

The reality: Children of cohabitating parents face higher risks of negative outcomes. The Pew survey’s question focused on the perceived parenting skills of the couple rather than the actual outcomes for the children. The actual outcomes are notably worse for the kids.

While Americans are optimistic about the ability of cohabiting couples to raise children, a study published by the American College of Pediatricians in 2014 reported that children whose parents cohabit face a higher risk of: “premature birth, school failure, lower education, more poverty during childhood and lower incomes as adults, more incarceration and behavior problems, single parenthood, medical neglect and chronic health problems both medical and psychiatric, more substance, alcohol and tobacco abuse, and child abuse,” and that “a child conceived by a cohabiting woman is at 10 times higher risk of abortion compared to one conceived in marriage.”

Much of what Americans believe about cohabitation is factually incorrect. If Americans knew the truth about the risks and consequences of premarital cohabitation, perhaps they would be less likely to approve or practice it.