Question and Answer

Question
What are the benefits of marriage versus living together?

Answer
One of the most certain ways to improve the health and well-being of the world’s population is to encourage and support the idea of marriage. … Research continually reveals that married people are generally physically healthier, happier, live longer, enjoy better mental health, are more fulfilled and less likely to suffer physical abuse. Premarital cohabitation (living together as a family outside of legal marriage) does not bring the same benefits marriage does. Instead, it brings increased conflict and aggression as well as increased chance of divorce in later marriages.

Dr. Robert H. Coombs, professor of Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), conducted a review of more than 130 published empirical studies measuring how marital status affects personal well-being. He concluded that scientific investigations, conducted from the 1930s to the present, “attest that married people live longer and generally are more emotionally and physically healthy than the unmarried.” Coombs specifically looked at the areas of alcoholism, suicide, morbidity and mortality, mental illness and self-reports of happiness.

  • Alcoholism. According to Coombs, “studies consistently found more alcoholism and problem drinking among the unmarried than the married.” Specifically, the separated and divorced account for 70 percent of all chronic problem drinkers, while married people account for only 15 percent. Single men are over three times more likely to die of cirrhosis of the liver than married men. This is because the married “are more satisfied than the unmarrieds” Coombs explains.
  • Suicide. Coombs’ literature review revealed, “empirical support extending back to the 19th century shows that the highest suicide rates occur among the divorced, the widowed, and the never married and lowest among the married.” The intact family creates a cohesive, integrating effect on its members, which serves as a strong deterrent to suicidal tendencies.
  • Morbidity and mortality. It was also consistently found that “married people enjoy greater longevity than the unmarried and generally make less use of health care services.” Coombs found that cures from cancer were 8-17 percent more likely for the married, and they also spend fewer days in bed due to acute illness. Surprisingly, it is not just companionship that makes the difference; it’s the presence of a marriage license. Research done at the University of California at San Francisco found that those “who lived alone or with someone other than a spouse had significantly shorter survival times compared with those living with a spouse … the critical factor for survival was the presence of a spouse.”
  • Psychiatric problems. Coombs found that the married suffered from schizophrenia less often than the unmarried and when they did, their recovery was more successful. The lowest rates for mental hospital admissions were consistently found among the married and the “separated and the divorced of both sexes experience particularly high mental health risks.” Additional studies done jointly at Yale University and UCLA found the “association between marital status and mental illness is robust and generalizable” among both African-American and white populations.
  • Self-reported happiness. Looking at self-reported happiness is an important indicator. It allows the scientist to evaluate the individual’s measure of their own situation, regardless of how others may measure it. Coombs found that “no part of the unmarried population — separated, divorced, widowed, or never married — describes itself as being so happy and contented with life as the married.”

Loneliness

Research published in Psychological Reports reveals that marrieds are less likely to report feeling lonely than those of other marital statuses. This is meaningful given loneliness was defined as “the absence or perceived absence of satisfying social relationships” which the authors explain is “not synonymous with aloneness, solitude, or isolation.” In a random sample of over 8,500 adults, the percentages of those feeling lonely were as follows:

  • Marital status and loneliness. Of the marrieds, 4.6 percent said they were lonely; of the Never Married, 14.5 percent were lonely; 20.4 percent of the Divorced were lonely; 20.6 percent of the Widowed and 29.6 of the Separated. The finding that married people are less lonely is “consistent with other population-based studies of loneliness.” This data contradicts the popular notion that when people marry, they are removing themselves from the satisfying social circle of the larger world to a life of drudgery, boredom and isolation. Just the opposite is true.
  • Who benefits most: men or women? Another analysis of 93 separate studies, by Dr. Wendy Wood of Texas A & M University, found the benefits of marriage “proved stronger for women than men.” Dr. Wood and her colleagues explain this contradicts the “picture of the ‘grim mental health’ of wives popularized by [feminists].”
  • Cohabitation. Dr. Jan Stets, a leading scholar on cohabiting relationships found in general, “Cohabiting couples compared to married couples have less healthy relationships. They have lower relationship quality, lower stability, and a higher level of disagreements.” Work done at the Family Violence Research Program at the University of New Hampshire in the U.S. found that “cohabiters are much more violent than marrieds…” It was also found that the overall rates of violence among cohabiters were double that of marrieds and “severe” violence was five times as high for cohabiters.

Stets also found that nearly three times as many cohabiters admitted “hitting, shoving and throwing things at their partners in the past year” compared to marrieds. She also found that cohabiters are more likely to “exhibit depression and drunkenness than married couples.” Additional research conducted at UCLA found that marriages preceded by cohabitation were more prone to problems like “use of drugs and alcohol, more permissive sexual relationships, and an abhorrence of dependence” than relationships not preceded by cohabitation.

All of this contributes to the fact that cohabiting relationships and marriages preceded by cohabitation break up at increased rates. It explains why “those who cohabit before marriage have substantially higher divorce rates than those who do not; the recorded differentials range from 50 percent to 100 percent.” In addition, research done jointly at Yale and Columbia Universities in the United States found that “the dissolution rate for women who cohabit premaritally with their future spouse are, on average, nearly 80 percent higher than the rates of those who do not.” The authors explain this finding is internationally consistent.

These facts have led scholars to conclude the, “expectation of a positive relationship between cohabitation and marital stability … has been shattered in recent years by studies conducted in several Western countries including Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, and the United States.” The idea that cohabitation serves as an effective testing ground for marriage has no basis in fact.

Conclusion

While marriage offers important benefits that no other relational status can match, it is cohabitation which has increased 533 percent since 1970, and the number of married adults has decreased 10 percent over the same period in the United States. It is troubling that the most beneficial form of family life is decreasing in frequency while one of the most harmful forms is rapidly increasing.

Answered by Glenn T. Stanton

Copyright © 1997 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.


Background Information

The Problem With Living Together
Far from a trial marriage, living together is more like a test drive.

Living Together: Not Such a Good Idea After All
The evidence is in: living together without the benefit of a marriage license can be hazardous to your health.


Questions and Answers

Is living together before marriage a good test of future compatibility?
Answer

My boyfriend and I are both from broken homes and want to divorce-proof our future marriage. Is living together a good test of future compatibility?
Answer

Review Frequently Asked Questions


Stories

Six-Month Security: Living Together Before Marriage
Find out why the “try before you buy” mentality doesn’t work when it comes to committed relationships.

Love Lessons
We long for intimacy but too often settle for physical or emotional promiscuity.

If you’ve been through a experience related to this topic, we invite you to share your story with others.

Share Your Story

Other Things to Consider

Never Surrender
A committed marriage can weather the storms of life.


Related Topics

Abuse & Addiction: Pornography and Cybersex, Sexual Abuse

Parenting Children: Talking About Sex

Parenting Teens: Sexual Activity, Crisis Pregnancy, Homosexuality

Transitions: Getting Married, Adoption, Having a Baby