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Living Together Versus Marriage: A Closer Look at the Data

Research [1] has consistently shown the positive impact of marriage on one’s mental health.  Compared with single persons, married persons tend to report decreased symptoms of depression [2] and increased psychological well-being.

More recently, however, with the increased incidence of pre-marital cohabitation, researchers [3] are beginning to consider whether the physical and mental health benefits that come from marriage might somehow exist with cohabitation, given that certain elements  – socioeconomic resources, social support, buffers against daily life stressors – would seem to be common among both forms of relationship.  The theory offered is that since in “modern times” there is no longer a stigma on cohabitation, it might be possible to prove that the previous absence of a positive “marriage effect” among those cohabitating had not so much to do with the lack of marriage itself as a sacrament or privileged union, but rather with the stigma which prevented cohabitating couples from reaping the ensuing benefits.

Headlines reporting on a recent study [4] by Mernitz and Kamp Dush read Live together or get married?  Study finds similar emotional benefits.  The piece quotes the authors as stating that “the results may reflect the fact that cohabiting today does not carry the same stigma as in previous generations.  Nowadays, about two-thirds of couples live together before marriage,” and emphasizes research findings which suggest some parallel results on measures of emotional health between those who chose to marry and those who chose to cohabit instead of marry.   However, closer inspection of the research article itself reveals some important caveats to the headline.

The Closer Look

There are a number of criticisms we can raise respecting this study including the very cursory measure of well-being—a five-item self-report (drug users feel good after a fix but that doesn’t mean that a fix is good for them in the true sense) and the focus on mean (average) results with no discussion of the statistical range of outcomes. (How many bad outcomes, and of what intensity, did cohabitation and marriage respectively yield?)  But for simplicity, we will focus on two of the noted results.

First, the anxiety-reducing effect of marriage was more than twice as large as that of cohabitation, suggesting that those who married had either greater, or more palpable, mental health improvements.  Second, the disparity was larger for men than for women.  The authors quote earlier research [5] which found that “men were more likely than women to report cohabiting as a way to test a relationship, and such relationship testing was linked to subsequent relationship problems, such as negative communication patterns, greater physical aggression and decreased commitment.”

The folly [6] of the “test drive” notion of marriage preparation is also well-known: living together without a formal commitment often wounds a couples’ ability to later establish trust in each other even after marriage.  Looking back at our drug use example above, it is important to point out that Mernitz and Kamp Dush, in discussing their study design, note that one difficulty with their research stemmed from how quickly people in cohabiting relationships would move from one union into another, again suggesting that whatever stability there is in cohabitation may be fleeting.

In summary, the study actually seems, headlines notwithstanding, to support once again the good that comes from traditional marriage with its lifelong commitment and stability.  Not surprisingly, other data explored in Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s project confirmed that other traditional values or goods such as giving birth to a child, attaining full-time employment, and achieving higher educational levels all significantly decrease emotional distress in a relationship.  As much as society seems to change and values appear to be relative and fluid, time and again the truth of the human person, made to love and to be loved, in a self-giving, reciprocal, permanent relationship, is borne out in the flourishing that ensues in such lives.