A recent Cornell study argues that cohabiting couples — partners who are not married but live together — are happier than married ones.
Prof. Kelly Musick, policy analysis and management, said that the main aim of the study, which will be published in the Journal of Marriage a in February, is to discern what factors affect people’s marriage choices.
The study followed 2,737 single men and women over six years to understand the changes in happiness that the individuals experienced as they entered relationships, including marriage. As part of the survey, participants were asked to rate their overall health, happiness, self esteem, depression and strength of ties with friends and family.
The results indicated that couples who cohabit improve their happiness and self-esteem, while married couples, according to the study, improve their health.
Musick also found that marriage and cohabitation have different effects on well-being.
“[The study] allows us to get a better handle on causality and assess the extent to which the benefits of marriage are unique or shared with cohabitation,” she said.
Musick noted that the relative benefits of marriage versus cohabitation might have changed over the years because she used data drawn from national surveys conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t more recent national surveys to demonstrate how our findings might have changed in the intervening years,” Musick said.
Still, Musick said that, in her research, she observed two major trends in society: the blurring of boundaries between marriage and cohabitation and the prevalence of the belief that “marriage still holds greater social status than cohabitation.”
“[The study] is a critical line of inquiry for understanding the nature and meaning of family change,” she said. “It has also been one of great interest outside academic circles, with the weakening of traditional marriage stimulating debate over the role of public policies in marriage promotion.”
Musick’s research — which was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences — is only the latest conducted by Cornell professors on cohabitation and marriage.
Another study by Prof. Sharon Sassler, policy analysis and management, suggests that the fear of the consequences of a failed marriage — which may be social or economic — may dissuade couples from getting married.
The study included interviews of 61 cohabiting couples from Columbus, Ohio, who had been in a relationship for more than three months.
Around 67 percent said fears of divorce deterred them from marriage, suggesting that the merits of marriage are overshadowed by the consequences of a breakup.
Musick said that it is important to realize how falling marriage rates impact on the role of marriage in peoples’ lives.
“Unmarried sex, cohabitation and childbearing have become common components of family life in the United States and other western industrialized countries,” Musick said. “These changes have blurred the boundaries of marriage, leading to questions about what difference marriage makes in comparison to alternative modes of organizing its traditional functions.”