Studies Show Marriage And Cohabitation Have Very Different Effects On Relationships, From Health To Happiness

Marriage rates have been in decline for a while now, while cohabitation becomes more and more popular. You've probably been told before that the two are pretty much the same—the only thing separating them is a meaningless piece of paper. Well, that couldn't be further from the truth. Data shows that relationships between a married couple and a cohabitating couple look very different indeed.

By Gina Florio4 min read
young couple

Marriage isn't in vogue anymore, so to speak. It has become much more common to see people entirely oppose marriage for a variety of reasons. They say it's outdated and pointless, some will even say it's an archaic, patriarchal practice that only seeks to trap women in a legal lifelong commitment. There are also many people who insist that marriage is nothing more than a useless piece of paper that the government gives you a tax break for. But if you really look at the effects marriage has on people, it's clear that marriage is a necessary entity that has a huge net positive on our society.

People who are married statistically are wealthier, have higher rates of happiness and fulfillment, and even have better health than their single, divorced, or cohabitating counterparts. Studies show that people who get married end up living much healthier lives than they did when they were single (this is especially true for men). Married people (again, especially men) are much less likely to suffer from mental illness and even way less likely to commit suicide. However, these are not the only differences that married people experience compared to those who refused to walk down the aisle. Cohabitation in general produces a different kind of relationship than what is made available through marriage.

Marriage, Unlike Cohabitation, Is a Public Matter

You've heard the phrase that marriage is "just a piece of paper." Marriage has never been just a legal document, and it never will be, no matter how hard people try to make it that way. Marriage is much more than two people privately deciding to spend the rest of their life as a couple. It's the coming together of two people to function in their community as a unit, to create a family, and to contribute to society in a meaningful way. That's what marriage always was—and yes, that's what marriage still is today, even if there are some people who independently try to define it differently.

Marriage is actually a public matter, not a private one.

That's a long-winded way to say that marriage is actually a public matter, not a private one. And that's precisely why the federal government recognizes it, offers tax breaks, and gives legal authority for a wife to be the proxy for her husband if he is ill and vice versa. The marriage contract is recognized by everyone around you. Functioning in society as a single person is very different than functioning in society as a married couple. You're invited to social events as a married couple, your relationship is taken much more seriously as a married couple, etc.

Cohabitation, on the other hand, is much more casual, and it's not recognized by society. Even the words wife and husband hold more weight than boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner. Cohabitating couples may be walking through some of the motions as married couples, such as sharing a home and perhaps even managing some bills together. But emotionally, couples who merely live together rather than fully commit to an eternity together will almost always have different outcomes in their relationship.

Marriage and Cohabitation Have Different Results on the Relationships

Married couples are much more likely to forgo temporary individual freedom in order to jointly plan for the long haul. For example, a husband may put in some extra hours at work so they can afford for his wife to go back to school for her master's. That will naturally mean he has less free time to pursue leisure activities, but in the long run, it's what's best for both of them. Cohabitating couples are much less likely to sacrifice in this way, and they're more committed to their individual freedom in the long run. The future of the partnership is generally more uncertain for cohabitating couples than for those who are married, so both parties are less willing to make sacrifices for the other because it comes with risk.

There may be some short-term advantages for couples who just feel like living together rather than getting married—little to no financial risk, little to no sacrifice of personal time and energy, and no legal complications. However, there's a long-term cost. Couples who live together before getting married are more likely to get divorced if they do eventually get married. Cohabiters don't have very negative feelings about divorce in general, and the longer they cohabitate, the less inclined they are to eventually get married.

Being unmarried could actually pose a greater risk to your health than having heart disease or cancer.

Did you know that being unmarried could actually pose a greater risk to your health than having heart disease or cancer? It sounds crazy, but that's the case for many people. Being married is actually one of the best things you can do for your health. Some data shows that being unmarried cuts off 10 years of a man's life expectancy.

Similarly, a study showed that people who are admitted to the hospital fare worse if they're unmarried and simply cohabitating. They were more likely to stay in the hospital longer, rack up a more expensive hospital bill, and stay sicker for longer. Additionally, they're 2.5 times more likely to be admitted to a nursing home than married patients. Surveys show that people who are unmarried even perceive themselves to be less healthy than those who are married. Married people are also less likely to suffer from chronic disease or illness compared to their cohabitating, unmarried counterparts.

One of the greatest advantages for married men is that they either completely stop or significantly reduce the common behaviors of single men, such as going out and drinking often, partying recklessly, driving drunk or under the influence, getting into stupid accidents with their friends, getting arrested, etc. Cohabitating men are not very likely to stop this behavior, meaning their health is at greater risk than married men's.

Cohabitating couples take their own relationship less seriously than married couples do.

Psychologists have even found that married people have better mental health because they always have someone to confide in, especially in particularly stressful or anxious moments of life. Simply talking to someone you trust about your troubles can improve immune function and curb the body's "fight or flight" nervous system response. It turns out that self-disclosure (and sexual intimacy) can actually help people ward off physical illness in the long run, and that is best achieved through marriage.

There have also been studies showing that men who cohabitate are not likely to change the habits they had when they were single, such as alcohol or drug use on the weekend, eating poorly, smoking, etc. So even though they think they're living the same life as married people are, their behaviors say something very different. There have even been surveys showing that cohabitating couples take their own relationship less seriously than married couples do, which isn't surprising considering the fact that they're usually cohabitating out of fear of the greater commitment that comes with marriage.

Closing Thoughts

This isn't to say that all cohabitating couples are doomed to be unhealthy and unhappy. But the data does encourage you to see the stark difference between marriage and cohabitation. It's not just that people who are more inclined toward health and happiness tend to marry; the data shows pretty clearly that people make healthier decisions and find fulfillment after they got married. If you're someone who knows you want a lifelong commitment and a family, the statistics suggest that cohabitating is a colossal waste of your time.