Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Teens Are Clueless When It Comes To Cohabitation

August 28, 2000

Can you identify a popular falsehood that is influencing the minds of teenagers and young adults and destroys their chances for marital happiness and family life? The answer: It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married to find out if they really get along.

Sorry, nothing could be further from the truth. In a 1996-1998 national survey by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, 66 percent of high school senior boys "agreed" or "mostly agreed" with that statement as did 59 percent of senior girls. Intuitively, teens and young adults think that living together before marriage will make for a more stable marriage. They are clueless.

Currently 4.2 million people or seven percent of U.S. households are in cohabiting relationships. Fifty percent of young people from all segments of society have had a "living together" experience before marriage.

Forty percent of these relationships breakup before marriage. Just like divorce, these breakups have pain, sense of loss, severe anger and damage to self-esteem, but none of the legal protections. Only 10 percent stay together longer than five years without marrying. The remaining 50 percent who do marry have a 46 percent higher divorce rate than those who do not live together before marriage.

Making a commitment of marriage means something. Failure to commit at the beginning makes leaving easier. The longer a couple lives together, the more likely the low commitment ethic of cohabitation will become entrenched. People who cohabit sequentially - one partner to the next - continue to have failed relationships. Couples learn poor communication skills and other bad habits during cohabitation that carry over into marriage.

Besides a greater risk for divorce, here are some facts teens should know about cohabitation compared to marriage:

- Married men and women are happier, healthier and wealthier than their cohabiting counterparts.

- Among cohabiting couples with no plans to marry, 17 percent report partner abuse. Among cohabiting couples with plans to marry, 14 percent report partner abuse. Only five percent of married couples report partner abuse.

- Twenty percent of cohabiting women had a secondary sexual partner. This was true for only 4 percent of married women.

- People who cohabit have a higher risk of suicide, depression, chronic and acute illnesses, accidents and lower productivity.

- Communities that have a higher concentration of married households are safer than those communities with substantially fewer married households.

Marriage makes for a better family life. Marriage makes sacred the compassion between lovers and then serves as a school for compassion for the children it generates. Marriage is the most stable and healthy environment in which to bear and raise children. There is not a single indicator for positive development that favors children impacted by divorce or out-of-wedlock birth compared to children raised in a two parent, intact home.

A 50 percent divorce rate is bad for family life, bad for children and bad for society. Couple this with the rapidly rising trend toward cohabitation as a substitute for marriage. Together they highlight the most disturbing trend of the 20th century - the abandonment of marriage.

Thirty-five percent of the never married cohabitors have children. Half of all previously married cohabitors have children in the home. Half of all stepfamilies involve a parent and a cohabiting partner. Seventy percent of children in unmarried couple households are unrelated to one of the parents. It is estimated that 40 percent of all children today will spend time in a home with their mother and a cohabiting partner. In 1998, 36 percent of unmarried couple households included one or more children under age 18, a 20 percent increase from a decade earlier. In the 24 to 35 year age range, half of all unmarried couple households had one or more children.

Children do best when they grow up in an intact, two-parent, married household even after equalizing differences in income. Children who live with their married parents are: two times less likely to fail at school, two to three times less likely to suffer an emotional or behavioral problem requiring psychiatric treatment, less likely to get in trouble with the law, use illicit drugs, smoke cigarettes, abuse alcohol, or engage in early and promiscuous sexual activity.

The most dangerous place for a child is in a household where the mom is cohabiting with a man who isn’t biologically related to the children. Children are almost 20 times more likely to suffer physical or sexual abuse in these households.

My message for young people.

- Date longer rather than living together. Keep the connection between sex, love and commitment. Old style courtships are best for making the wisest choice for a lifetime mate.

- Marriage is a source of strength and joy. It is the way to happiness. Don’t settle for a risky alternative.

- Marriage is good for children. It is necessary for children.

- Take marriage education classes and go for premarital counseling. Find out what it takes to make a good marriage. Read the research. Don’t be clueless, even if half of your peers choose to be.

These statistics were gathered from, "The State of Our Unions 2000," published by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University and the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.