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Published November 25, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: Weighing benefits, costs of living together

According to the new Pew Research analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the rates of unmarried cohabitation – the status of couples who are sexual partners, not married to each other, and sharing a household – have doubled over the past 15 years. Between 1960 and 2005, cohabitation has increased by 1,200 percent or more than tenfold.

By: By Val Farmer, INFORUM

According to the new Pew Research analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the rates of unmarried cohabitation – the status of couples who are sexual partners, not married to each other, and sharing a household – have doubled over the past 15 years. Between 1960 and 2005, cohabitation has increased by 1,200 percent or more than tenfold.

The Pew Research report used census data, primarily from the 2009 American Community Survey, to compare incomes, employment and household composition of three groups of adults ages 30-44: married, cohabiting with an opposite-sex partner and not living with an opposite-sex partner. Most adults without opposite-sex partners live with other adults or children.

The share of adults who are currently cohabiting has risen from 3 percent in 1995 to 7 percent in 2010 among adults ages 30-44. The share is twice as high among adults without a college education (8 percent) as among those with a college degree (4 percent). Meantime, the share of adults who have ever cohabited is much larger. Among women ages 19 to 44, some 58 percent had cohabited sometime during 2006-2008, up from 33 percent among a comparable group in 1987. A growing percentage of cohabiting couple households, now over 40 percent, contain children.

Studies show it is generally the poor and less educated, less religious, divorced or those growing up in a home where there has been parental divorce, no father present in the home, or high levels of marital discord that cohabit.

One of the chief rationales for cohabitation has been an economic benefit – two can live cheaper than one. But is that true?

Impact varies by education. Researchers found that among college-educated adults ages 30-44, income is $106,400 for cohabiters, $101,160 for married adults and $90,067 for adults without opposite-sex partners.

Why the income bump for cohabiters? Married adults have the highest wages, but among college-educated adults, a greater share of cohabiters is in two-earner couples, and therefore cohabiting couples are more likely to have multiple earners.

However, when income levels are compared to adults of the same age who do not have a college degree, cohabiters fare less well. For example, average income for married couples without college degrees is $56,800. Average income for cohabiters without college degrees is $46,540. Income among adults without opposite-sex partners and without college degrees is $45,033.

Why the drop in income for cohabiters? Researchers found that among adults without college degrees, married adults not only have higher wages but are more likely than cohabiters to be in two-earner couples.

Marriage clearly benefits couples who lack a college education. Cohabiters are no better off economically than a comparably educated adult not living with an opposite sex partner.

Impact of children: Pew researchers also found that whatever their partnership status, adults in households with children have significantly lower median household incomes than comparably educated adults in households without children.

Cohabiters without college degrees are much more likely to be in a household with children than are college-educated cohabiters. This diminishes their potential economic gains from living with a partner.

Living without an opposite-sex partner: Researchers also found that among adults living without opposite-sex partners, the college educated are more likely to live alone and to earn the bulk of their household income. This helps explain why they get an economic boost from moving in with a partner.

The shares of household income earned by the typical less-educated, unpartnered adult and cohabiting adult are similar, suggesting that moving in with a partner does not result in a household income gain.

Broken hearts, mental health issues, domestic violence and child abuse. About two-thirds (68 percent) of those cohabiting think they will marry their current partner someday. The reality is that 50 percent of cohabiting couples don’t make it to the altar.

Like a divorce, these couples experience pain, sense of loss, severe anger and damage to self-esteem, but enjoy none of the legal protections. People who cohabit have a higher risk of suicide, depression, chronic and acute illnesses, accidents and lower productivity.

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.

About half of all cohabiting relationships in this country end within five years.

Here is the kicker. Cohabiters who eventually marry have a higher divorce rate than those who do not live together before marriage. If a long-lasting, loving marriage is the goal, then living together before marriage prepares them more for failure than success. Verdict: The costs outweigh the benefits.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website.

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