|Shown to Put Partners and Kids at Risk
OTTAWA, 1 OCT. 2005 (ZENIT)
Living together is an increasingly popular
option in many countries. But it can involve high social and emotional
costs, says a new study, "Cohabitation and Marriage: How Are They
Related?" The Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family published the
study Sept. 17.
The author, Anne-Marie Ambert, brings together the results of hundreds
of research papers that examined the social, emotional and financial
effects of cohabitation and marriage on men, women, children and
Cohabitation, the study observes, is often seen as entailing fewer
responsibilities at a legal or financial level, and less fidelity than
marriage. In recent years, however, de facto couples have sought and
gained rights similar to those of married couples, in areas such as
property, health insurance, pension plans, and child support.
Ambert notes that in Canada the marriage rate steeply declined in the
1990s, particularly in the province of Quebec. The United States has
also seen marriage rates drop, though not as much as in Canada.
In both countries, the number of cohabiting couples has risen sharply.
In 2000, more than 4.1 million heterosexual couples in the United States
and 1.3 million in Canada cohabited. In 2001, 16% of all Canadian
couples and 8.2% of all American couples were cohabiting. In Quebec the
level reached 30%, the same proportion as in Sweden. Excluding Quebec,
11.7% of Canadian couples cohabit.
The study cites data showing that cohabitation, in fact, leads to higher
divorce rates. Ambert cites the Canadian General Social Survey, which
found, in the 20-to-30 age group, 63% of women whose first relationship
had been cohabitational had separated by 1995. This compared to 33% of
women who had married first.
Trying to find the causes behind this phenomenon, Ambert observes that
some individuals choose cohabitation because it does not require sexual
fidelity. Evidence indicates that the experience of a less committed
cohabitation shapes subsequent marital behavior, she notes.
"Some couples continue to live their marriage through the perspective of
the insecurity, lack of pooling of resources, low commitment level, and
even lack of fidelity of their prior cohabitation," the study comments.
Moreover, some studies have indicated that married couples who
previously lived together are less faithful in their sexual lives. And a
lack of fidelity is known to be a factor leading to higher rates of
Other studies show that couples who had cohabited had less positive
problem-solving behaviors and were, on average, less supportive of each
other than those who had not cohabited. As well, researchers have found
that couples who had cohabited before marriage had much higher rates of
premarital violence than those who had not lived together. This
premarital violence then leads to higher rates of marital violence,
another factor related to divorce.
Ambert also notes that those who cohabit are generally more approving of
divorce as a solution to marital problems. In addition, couples who
cohabit are less religious than those who marry without prior
cohabitation. On this point there are several studies that indicate a
correlation between religiosity and marital happiness as well as
She also opines that a propensity to cohabit soon after starting a
romantic relationship leads to a pattern of instability. People who go
through a series of de facto relationships are more likely contract
quick marriages, which are harder to remain faithful to.
Another risk factor with cohabitation is its unstable nature. More than
half of all these unions dissolve within five years, according to one
study cited by Ambert. In Quebec the level of dissolution of de facto
relationships is lower than in other provinces, but they still break up
at a significantly higher rate than marriages, she noted.
And the trend seems to be toward greater instability. In the 1970s,
about 60% of couples living together went on to marry their partner
within three years. By the early 1990s this figure dropped to about 35%.
In more recent years, a large proportion of young people began living
together soon after the onset of dating, with little intention of
remaining together permanently, and even less of getting married.
Breaking up then becomes much more difficult than if couples had simply
continued to date each other.
But it's not just the couple involved who face problems. In 2001, 8.2%
of Canadian children ages 14 and younger lived in common-law households,
excluding Quebec where 29% lived in such households. In the United
States an estimated 40% of all children will live with their single
mother (never-married or divorced) and her boyfriend at some point
before their 16th birthday.
Ambert commented that in spite of increasing social acceptance of
cohabitation, there is little direct information on the effects for
children. A hint of the disadvantages does emerge, however, from
research comparing cohabitants to daters and to married persons.
For children, cohabitation means a greater risk of living within an
unstable family structure, especially when their mother cohabits with a
man who is not their father. Some families even face a "revolving door"
situation, with a series of partners over the years. Ambert notes that
one study found that children living with their mother and cohabiting
boyfriend had lower school performance and more behavioral problems.
When it comes to family finances, Ambert observes that when a single
mother begins to cohabit, poverty can be reduced by as much as 30%.
While this is of financial benefit to children in the short term, the
downside is that the male partner in a de facto relationship normally
earns less than a married man. Moreover, any economic advantage from
cohabitation is often short-term because of the fragility of these
Further problems resulting from the instability of cohabitation affect
the mother's capacity to give adequate attention to children, and
contribute to general neglect. The mother's partner is not as likely to
compensate for this deficiency because his attachment to the children is
Physical abuse is also more likely and young children in cohabiting
relationships are more likely to be injured or killed by their mother's
live-in boyfriend than in biological families. Girls, for their part,
are at higher risk of being sexually abused.
"Commitment and stability are at the core of children's needs; yet, in a
great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent,"
Many people, Ambert notes toward the end of her study, maintain that
marriage is merely a matter of lifestyle choice and that it is
equivalent to cohabitation. "The research literature does not support
this view at this point," she writes. Instead, studies demonstrate that
marriage has many benefits for both spouses and children. A conclusion
public lawmakers might want to take into consideration. ZE05100101