SALT LAKE CITY — The share of Americans who cohabit has been rising and most adults say that’s acceptable, whether a cohabiting couple intends to marry or not. And married couples are more satisfied with their relationship and have more trust in their partner than do those who cohabit.
Just over half of American adults say they believe society is better off if longtime couples do marry, while 46% think society will be just fine if long-term cohabiters don’t marry.
Those are among the findings of a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday. As couples increasingly delay or even skip marriage entirely, Pew wanted to look at the dynamics of the two types of relationships and see how the public perceives them, said Nikki Graf, a Pew research associate.
Graf said that even after the researchers controlled for age, race, education, duration of the relationship and religious affiliation, married adults still expressed higher levels of satisfaction and trust than did cohabiting adults.
The number of U.S. adults who are currently married has decreased from 58% in 1995 to 53% today, the survey found, while the share now cohabiting has risen from 3% to 7%. But the trend has been shifting, especially among younger adults, who are much more likely than older ones to embrace cohabiting as a choice of its own or as a first step toward marriage. Of those ages 18 to 44, 59% have at some point lived with an unmarried partner, surpassing the share who have ever been married, which stands at 50%.
Pew also noted age differences in attitudes about cohabitation and marriage. Younger people are more likely to think cohabitation is acceptable even if couples don’t plan to marry, at 70% for those under 30, compared to 63% of those who are 65 or older. And younger adults are also more likely to say that couples who live together without marriage can raise children just as well as those who do marry.
The survey asked those who are married or living with a partner about satisfaction and trust across numerous measures and found that married couples are more satisfied than are those who cohabit, a finding called “striking” by W. Bradford Wilcox, a senior scholar at the Institute for Family Studies and a sociologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the study.
“When making the choice to be with someone who wants to cohabit versus someone who would like to marry you, it looks like taking the latter option is linked to better outcomes on a host of things from fidelity to communication to the sense that someone has your back,” he said.
Faith and other factors
Overall, 69% of the nationally representative sampling of 9,834 adults said cohabiting is acceptable even if partners don’t plan to marry; 14% never approve and 16% deem it acceptable with future plans to marry.
The majority of Catholics (74%), white nonevangelical Protestants (76%) and people who were unaffiliated with a religion (90%) all said it was acceptable for adults to live with a romantic partner without plans to marry. In contrast, just 35% of evangelical Christians said that, while for black Protestants, the number was 47%.
Married people are more confident their partner will be faithful to them (84% vs. 71%), act in their best interests (74% vs. 58%) and always tell them the truth (68% vs. 52%). Married respondents are more likely to trust their partner to handle money responsibly, as well, 56% to 40%.
While a majority of neither married or cohabiting partners call themselves “very satisfied” with their partner’s approach to parenting, household chore division, the partner’s work/life balance or communication within their relationship, the numbers are higher for married couples. The two types of couples are closest on sex, with 36% of married and 34% of cohabiters very satisfied with their sex lives.
Majorities across all the couples say they are together for love and companionship.
Wilcox’s colleague at the Institute for Family Studies, Wendy Wang, called the new findings “largely consistent with research we’ve done.” She said in a survey of 11 developed countries, they found cohabiting parents overall are less satisfied with their family life than married parents.
“More importantly, they are more likely than married parents to have serious doubts that their relationship will last. This signals a less stable relationship for raising children,” said Wang, who directs the Institute of Family Life.
While the Pew survey found most Americans believe cohabiters can raise children just as well as married couples, Wang countered that “in fact, children are more likely to thrive in stable families and married family is overall more stable for children than a cohabiting family.”