Cohabitation Isn’t As Good As Marriage, And The Law Shouldn’t Pretend It Is

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In the wake of the sexual revolution, the increasing popularity of cohabitation is an alarming trend. Cohabitation, the practice of a romantically involved couple living together while unmarried, has doubled since 1995, with 12 percent of adults under the age of 30 living with their sexual partners.

As cohabitation has become more accepted by Americans, there is also increasing support (from 65 percent of American adults, to be precise) for cohabitating couples receiving the same economic and tax benefits as married couples. The state should not provide the same economic incentives to cohabitors, however, because marriage is shown to be more beneficial to both individuals and civil society.

It is important to preface this discussion with the fact that people generally choose to marry for different reasons than they choose to cohabitate. Although both groups cite love and companionship as major reasons for either marriage or cohabitation, cohabitors are comparatively much more likely to move in with their partners for financial reasons or convenience. Additionally, less than half (44 percent) of cohabitors said living with their partner was a step towards marriage.

Social science also informs us that people, particularly women, who marry without cohabiting experience lower levels of relational disillusionment and higher levels of relational satisfaction. The same study found that cohabitors who did not have plans of marrying had the lowest quality of relationships, compared with married couples and cohabiting couples who planned to marry.

The Institute for Family Studies also found children whose biological parents are cohabitating are more than twice as likely to be exposed to domestic violence than are the children of married parents. The belief that cohabitation and marriage are largely comparable is simply untrue.

While there are other social and religious arguments about cohabitation, there are also significant economic factors that should be considered. According to an American Enterprise Institute study, higher marriage rates are “strongly associated with more economic growth, more economic mobility, less child poverty, and higher median family income” in the United States. The same study also observed that marriage fosters “a positive labor market orientation among young men” and reduces the prevalence of violent crime on the state level.

Another study by the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University found that married individuals who stayed married had a net worth per person that was 93 percent higher than that of single individuals. (Conversely, divorced individuals reported wealth levels that were 77 percent lower than single individuals.) Additionally, married individuals’ wealth increased by 16 percent on average per year, while divorced individuals had a 14 percent increase on average and single individuals had only an eight percent increase.

The data clearly shows marriages are more economically fruitful on both individual and societal levels. So it is logical that the state would encourage and incentivize marriage and not cohabitation. One way the government incentivizes marriage is through various tax advantages. To offer the same economic advantages to cohabitors, who do not return the same economic benefit to society, would be imprudent.

In his book “On Ordered Liberty,” Samuel Gregg writes the “law has a pedagogical function. It helps to provide information about matters … that people need before making reasonable choices while simultaneously providing important room for free choice.” Essentially, the law has an educative function. By providing economic incentives for marriage, the law indirectly communicates that marriage is better for civil society than cohabitation, which is true.

Despite the changes in public perception about cohabitation, research shows it is inferior to marriage in both its social and economic functions. Because marriage better supports the happiness and prosperity of both individuals and civil society, government can and should reinforce its value through economic incentives. The practice of cohabitation should not be given the same treatment because it has been proven to be a less beneficial practice.

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