Living Together, Part 2: Who Needs the "Piece of Paper" Anyway?

Living together has become a more common phenomenon over the past 40 years. While only about half a million people in the U.S. reported living together in 1970, over 4 million people report living together today. Living together has become a very commonplace experience for many people.

Often couples talk about how living together is a good way to transition into marriage. In fact, some see it as a kind of trial marriage. Others reduce the differences between living together and marriage to a “piece of paper”. Given the social and financial pressures brought to bear on couples who get married, it is perhaps not surprising that the differences between these arrangements are seen as trivial to some. However, research has consistently shown that marriage and co-habitation differ in multiple and significant ways.

Sociologist Linda Waite from the University of Chicago took a comprehensive look at the issue. Back in 2000, her research looked specifically at how being married contrasted with living together. What she found was that as compared to married people, those who lived together had higher rates of infidelity and separation, lived in poorer financial circumstances, and reported more incidents of verbal arguments becoming physical. Since that time, research has also shown that married couples are more likely to share bank accounts and to have the financial support of family or in-laws. The picture painted by the research in this area brings to mind images of two-silo’s agreeing to a co-habitation agreement and contrasts that with the explicit commitment required in marriage which leads to a ripple effect of concentric circles of support for an interdependent couple.

Marriage typically begins with a private, explicit commitment between two people and ends in a public ceremony before a group of ones’ family and friends. Co-habitation or living together typically lacks these two characteristics which form the basis of the “ripple effect” noted above.

At the same time, it should be noted that the statistics only show that more married people have longer term relationships than those who decide to live together. They do not show that all or even most people who get married stay together. As noted in an earlier episode of Family Anatomy, close to half of the marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. The same can be said of all of the “benefits” of marriage cited above. In addition, the statistics do not show a difference between people who marry and those who live together with the intention of marriage. It is also important to note that, for those people who do not feel the level of commitment necessary to go through an explicit demonstration of it to one another as well as to family and friends, not getting married can be a very appropriate and fitting decision. People naturally have different levels of comfort with commitment. There are many couples who may feel good about the state of their current relationship, while at the same time being uncertain about the future.

Making informed choices is the best outcome for any person entering into a relationship. In this case, an informed choice means being aware that the difference between being married and living together is more than a “piece of paper”.

You can read more about Dr. Waite’s research here.

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