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Enrique Iglesias, son of popular Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, was in the news recently — not because he came out with a new album or because he’s on a world tour. No, it’s because Iglesias was asked — again — whether he was ever going to marry his girlfriend, former tennis pro Anna Kournikova.

Never mind that they’ve been together for 13 years and living together since 2013. Obviously something’s wrong with them otherwise they would have done what everyone else does and tied the knot by now.  cohabitation

So Iglesias had to defend himself — again:

“I didn’t say that I don’t want to get married. I don’t know if I maybe came out the wrong way. What I said is that, ‘We are extremely happy the way we are.’ I’m not against marriage by any means. … But when you’ve been with someone for such a long time, I don’t think it’s going to make — bring us closer together. I don’t think it’s going to … make us any happier.” tweet

Iglesias isn’t the only one who thinks that way; there are numerous couples that are choosing to live together rather than marry.

There’s been a lot of talk and a fair amount of hand-wringing about the numbers of couples that are living together — there are 12 times as many cohabiting couples today as there were in the 1970s (in part because we’re a lot more accepting of such arrangements and in part because Millennials are — wisely — delaying marriage). But, a good percentage of those couples eventually go on to marry while some 40 percent split within five years. A small amount, about 10 percent, however, see living together as an alternative to marriage, and a recent study by sociologist Alison Hatch, “Saying I Don’t to Matrimony: An Investigation of Heterosexual Couples Who Resist Marriage,” is a revealing look at why couples prefer cohabitation over marriage.

Lest anyone think cohabitors don’t know how to commit, Hatch found the opposite. And they are not merely “trying marriage on” either, which doesn’t work anyway, as Susan Pease Gadoua and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels; cohabitation is viewed as second-tier to the “real thing” so you can’t live together and experience what being married is like.

So what did Hatch discover? There are two big themes on why couples reject marriage — what marriage means and what marriage does:

“First, many of the stated reasons to resist marriage stem from the participants’ concerns about the meaning of marriage. In other words, some do not want to marry because they do not agree with what marriage, as an institution or a ritual, means in today’s society. These respondents were concerned with issues of civil liberties, and equality and religious freedom, and they felt as though marriage conflicted with those ideals. In addition to concerns about the meanings associated with marriage, respondents also indicated trepidation about what marriage does to the relationship. Thus, the second larger category of responses comprised fears about the consequences of marriage and the belief that the perceived risks associated with marriage outweigh the perceived benefits.” tweet

Included in the above are a few prevalent beliefs about marriage: that it creates a sense of ownership (well, it’s true — women were the property of their husband for many, many, many years); that it stifles freedom and independence (it has been called a “greedy institution“); it enables couples to become “too comfortable,” and the label “wife” and the expectations that come with being a wife are troublesome for some women — especially woman who have been married before.

I’ve talked about the problems of being a wife before (something Oprah seems to understand), and how instead of having the egalitarian marriage couples say they want, they still end up with a “his” and “hers” marriage (and for black couples, it’s even more challenging). And I’ve talked about how couples can get “too comfortable” in a marriage — except, it happens with long-term cohabiting couples, too, as Susan Sarandon discovered. Some of the problems may not be marriage per se, but living together, which is why I prefer being a LAT. Still, society understands and expects marriage, despite the fact that some see it as becoming more irrelevant at the same time same-sex couples are continuin fighting for the right to have it. Clearly, marriage still means something.

As Hatch notes, the cohabiting couples she interviewed look and act a lot like married couples, with the same concerns and arguments, shared responsibilities (including in some cases children) and yes, even commitment. The difference — and this is a big one — is what they’ve given up by rejecting a marriage license:

“This decision often comes at a price, as many faced legal obstacles in their attempts to secure the rights and privileges given automatically to married couples (e.g., the right to coverage by a spouse’s health insurance). Additionally, most to some degree faced social pressure to marry, which reflects Andrew Cherlin’s (2004) argument that despite the increase in cohabitation and ‘deinstitutionalization’ of marriage, the symbolic significance of marriage remains high within the culture.” tweet

This is what Susan and I discovered while researching for our book — once you live together as romantic partners, being unmarried creates as many complications as being married does, except you have legal protections once you tie the knot. So whichever way you choose to be partnered, married or not, there is a strong case to be made for individualizing your partnership, either in a marital plan or a cohabiting plan. Recently, I’ve stumbled upon two good sources for the latter — Cohab Monkey (which, like The New I Do, asks important questions about why the couple is moving in together, what are the union’s goals, the scope of commitments, financial and non-financial, etc.) and Living Together Agreement. I just can’t see anyone moving in together for the long haul without a cohabitation plan. I would suggest a cohabiting plan even if you’re living together for convenience/financial issues (if you’re moving in together and already talking about and/or planning marriage, you need The New I Do).

Two of the most high-profile cohabitors I know of, economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, wisely created such a contract. As Stevenson, an economic adviser to President Obama, has written:

“Marriage is a contract between two people about how to organize their lives together. But modern marriage is a one-size-fits-all contract — a default written by the state legislatures. It makes no sense to me that I would want to sign the same contract with Justin that you sign with your partner. So we didn’t take the standard off-the-shelf contract that we call marriage. Instead, we’ve talked at length about what is important to each of us, and it’s that Betsey-and-Justin-specific agreement that guides our lives together. And as anyone who has studied divorce knows, the formal marriage contract doesn’t actually bind our future selves. But I have something far more enduring with Justin than a wedding certificate: We have an amazing daughter, who will bind us together for, well, until death do us part.” tweet

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to live together and reject marriage or choosing to live together and embrace marriage — or, for that matter, live apart and be committed nonetheless. You just need to choose one of those paths consciously.

What do you think?

Interested in creating a specific kind of marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

8 Responses to “Is cohabitation ever the same as marriage?”

  1. Vicki,
    I enjoyed reading your informative article. I’ve written several pieces on this topic and agree with most of your points, especially your conclusion:
    “There’s nothing wrong with choosing to live together and reject marriage or choosing to live together and embrace marriage — or, for that matter, live apart and be committed nonetheless. You just need to choose one of those paths consciously.” Bravo!

    What do I think? I believe that the couples can successfully live together without marriage if they have a cohabitation plan and are on the same page. However, if they have children (of their own or from a prior relationship) I would strongly advise that they consider tying the knot. As a licensed Clinical Social Worker, a large part of my practice is counseling children, and I’ve seen a huge increase over the years in kids who are troubled by living in families where their parents practice cohabitation – especially if one or both parents have several different partners. For many children (not all) these relationships contribute to their feelings of insecurity, lack of attachment, and emotional distress. Certainly other factors contribute to their emotionally instability – such as lack financial resources and having an absent or distant parent. Nonetheless, cohabitation seems to be a key issue contributing to many children’s loss of stable relationships and upheaval in their family – from their perspective.
    Consequently, even though I haven’t conducted any formal research studies on this topic, when it comes to the impact of cohabitation on children, I concur with Brad Wilcox’s findings that cohabitation can have negative consequences for children. Brad is the Director of the National Marriage Project, The University of Virginia, and he has published many articles on this topic.

    Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Hi Terry,
      Thanks for your comment. I have a few friends, long-time cohabitors, who have children together. Its never been an issue. I don’t think it’s cohabitation per se; the same problems can occur if divorced parents keep subjected their kids to a constant stream of new romantic partners. Kids need consistency and it’s hard to get that if they have to keep attaching and detaching to their parents’ new lovers. What Hatch’s study didn’t full flesh out, and what she hopes to see happen, is a longitudinal study of couples, whether cohabiting or not, that identify as committed to one another yet choose to
      forgo legal marriage altogether. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Robert Cohen says:

    I can’t believe you ignored the number one reason why divorced people live together instead of marry. Family court issues. If I re-married, my second wife’s income would be included in the calculation of lifelong alimony which I must pay. Any assets owned by my second wife could be subject to lien and even seizure by my first wife since they would be my assets as much as hers. The only way to keep my girlfriend’s income and assets out of reach of my first wife is to avoid marriage.
    On the flip side, my ex-wife will never remarry because she would lose her lifelong guaranteed income direct deposited in her bank account each month –her alimony. My ex would also lose the ability to receive social security retirement income based on my earning history. She would have to rely on her own lesser earnings unless she married a high earner.
    The economic penalties for remarriage for both my ex and I are huge, and midlife divorced couples like us are the rule rather than the exception. All this nonsense about the psychological effects of a marriage certificate is quite trivial compared to a choice between living in poverty versus abundance.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for commenting Robert. Ms. Hatch’s study briefly addressed the financial ramifications, as about a third of her study participants were divorced. None brought up alimony, but some were on SS and that would be a problem, others were in the military and that would be a problem. This article was mostly based on her study (which was not just limited to middle-aged divorced people, who have their own special complications, as you note) and perceptions of cohabiting vs. marriage. But, yes, alimony and etc. would be a concern. Lifelong alimony? Whoa, that is amazing (California, where I live, does not have that).

      • Robert Cohen says:

        Actually, alimony in California is open-ended as the judge is not even allowed to set an end date. But California is almost unique in having the “Gavron warning” which requires supported ex-spouses to make some steps toward becoming self-supporting. More info at this link:

        • Peter says:

          You hit the nail on the head Robert. I’m surprised that Vicki is surprised that life long alimony doesn’t exist in California. Takes all of a nano second to Google. For your same reasons I’ll never remarry either. It is nonsense all the psychological effects of a marriage certificate. If I had known that my wife could leave, then demand, and win, alimony simply because her salary was less than mine (even though we have equal education) I would never have married. And now, I’m prevented from married again for the same reasons as you. It’s all financial. Psychology has nothing to do with it, but people don’t talk about that.

  3. blurkel says:

    Cohabitation can’t be the same as marriage, for it has all of the benefits and none of the detriments. Marriage is only for those emotional children who need a parental image to keep them inside what they would otherwise flee. Real adults can handle cohabitation. children need a ring.

  4. blurkel says:

    Cohabbing is far more honest than marriage. Cohabbers have to decide every single day to stay, because leaving doesn’t require a court, a judge, and a couple of lawyers. Women have come to rely upon the law to keep their men from straying, or to get rid of him if they choose to leave. Either way, he pays.

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