Trends are showing that there is a change in the way intimate relationships are constituted throughout the world. Cohabiting, in the absence of a marriage contract has only become so common over the past few decades. This practice of living with a partner in an intimate relationship that does not involve signing a marriage contract, referred to by any of the terms consensual unions, cohabiting unions, cohabitation, or living together, is evidenced both in developed and developing countries.
Mokomane (2005) notes an increase over marriage in this type of relationship (p. 57). Kenny and McLanahan also observe that, in the U. S., cohabitation has surpassed marriage as the preferred mode of intimate unions. It is useful, therefore, to understand differences between a cohabiting and a marriage relationship, in order to determine why couples are now choosing this type of union over marriage.
The most apparent difference between a marriage and a cohabiting relationship is in their institutional makeup. A marriage is, by its very nature, a contractual type of relationship where both couples agree to an intimate union. A cohabiting relationship is also an agreement between two partners. The difference is that a marriage requires signing a legal document representative of the couples’ legal obligations to each other. In a cohabiting union such legality is not evident.
Marriage relationships are therefore more permanent than cohabiting unions specifically because of this legality. A cohabiting couple may choose to end a relationship at any time without facing much external difficulties but a married couple has to apply for a divorce. Simply put a married couple is legally accountable for either staying together or separating while this is not so in the case of cohabiting couples.
Mokomane (2005) notes a further difference in the average age of individuals who enter either union. She has observed that couples in a cohabiting relationship are usually much younger than those in a cohabiting relationship. From her research it was discovered that cohabiting men and women average 37.9 and 32.8 years respectively while their married counterparts average 51.3 and 45.6 years respectively based on the 2001 census in the U.S. (p. 63). This is suggesting that cohabiting relationships is usually the first choice relationship and later there is the transfer into a marriage union when the individual gets older.
It has also been noted that married couples earn more than their cohabiting counterparts. According to Clarkberg (1999), income is usually a predictive factor for individuals to get married. She argues that, since individuals with more income seem to be the ones that enter into married unions, then a good income is probably seen as a requirement for entering into a married union. Clarkberg cites research conducted in Puerto Rico in which it was concluded that cohabiting relationships are ‘a poor man’s marriage’(p. 947).
Markowski, Croake and Keller also found that cohabiting couples had more lifetime partners than married couples suggesting a higher rate of promiscuity in the former group. They establish that cohabiting couples are more likely than married couples to have had more than six sexual partners (p. 33).
Finally research has found that there is a higher rate of domestic violence among couples that are cohabiting than those that are married. Even further there are also higher rates of homicide within this group (Kenny & McLanahan, 2006). In consistent cases it has been found that the rate of domestic violence among married couples is significantly less than the rate among cohabiting couples. These researchers estimate that cohabiting relationships are between two and four times more likely to involve domestic violence than married relationships.
It appears therefore that, for reasons of economy and because of its perceived permanence, more persons are staying away from marriage relationships, at least in their younger days, while enjoying the privileges of an intimate living relationship with their partner.
Related essay: “My Ideal Wife”
Clarkberg, M. (1999). The price of partnering: The role of economic well-being in young adults’ first union experiences. Social Forces, 77(3), 945-968.
Kenny, C. T. & McLanahan, S. S. (2006, Feb). Why are cohabiting relationships more violent than marriages? Demography, 43(1), 127-140.
Markowski, E. M., Croake, J. W. & Keller, J. F. (1978, Feb). Sexual history and present sexual behavior of cohabiting and married couples. The Journal of Sex Research, 14(1), 27-39.
Mokomane, Z. (2005). A demographic and socio-economic portrait of cohabitation in Botswana. Society in Transition, 36(1), 57-73.
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