Last month, the United Kingdom marked “Cohabitation Awareness” week, a campaign to help bring public and government attention to rights for cohabiting couples. Some 3.3 million cohabiting couples are raising children in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics. Currently, cohabiting couples in the UK who live together a long time, form bonds, share property, and have children, for instance, have little legal protection against suffering great losses should a split occur.
This is what is motivating politicians in the UK to make efforts to improve the lot of cohabitors. Resolution chairman Nigel Shepherd told the BBC: "The government must listen to the public, legal professionals and a growing number of politicians who all agree that we need reform to provide basic rights to cohabiting couples should they separate." In the meantime, one lawyer wrote at The Huffington Post, since the UK government currently doesn’t recognize cohabitor rights, couples should be encouraged to sign "Cohabitation Agreements."
Legal agreements generally sound like a safe route to take. But if we are talking about rights and children and putting pen to paper to make things official, a cohabitation agreement can’t help but sound like a prenup without the nuptials. Wouldn’t it make more sense for cohabiting couples to just get married?
This is a question worth asking, considering that marriage continues to be one of the best indicators of family stability worldwide, despite its being less common than cohabitation globally. The 2017 World Family Map report offers some insight on the difference this makes for families and children across the globe. Published by the Social Trends Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, the World Family Map looks at 16 indicators of family structure, family socioeconomics, family processes, and family culture to report on the health of the family worldwide.
The report reveals that children born into cohabiting families are more likely to see their parents split by age 12 than children born into married families, according to data from the United States and 16 European countries. The UK is home to the highest percentages of children born to cohabiting couples who experience at least one transition by age 12, regardless of the mothers' education level. As the UK Marriage Foundation notes, “The UK now has the highest rate of family instability in the developed world, in particular among cohabiting couples with children under 12.”
On a global level, the World Family Map concluded,
while growth in cohabitation tends to close the socioeconomic gap between cohabiting and married couples, it does not close the stability gap for their children. In other words, marriage seems to be associated with more family stability for children across much of the globe.
A recent piece in The Economist echoes the benefits of married-parenthood for children. Married middle-class parents, for instance, give their children significant advantages by engaging in something of a “four-handed juggling act that prepares their offspring for success at school, university, and the most demanding jobs. Their children marry well, and the cycle begins again.”
But will child welfare alone compel cohabiting couples to marry? Even if they have the long haul in mind, in all likelihood, most cohabiting couples probably are not sitting down to plan out their family tree as they start a live-in relationship. Research shows, for example, that many cohabiting couples “slide” into cohabiting, rather than make a well-thought-out decision to live together.
As University of Denver psychologist Scott Stanley notes in a 2006 paper analyzing data on cohabitation, “for many couples, the ambiguity of cohabitation becomes part of the pathway toward a marriage more prone to distress or divorce because of relationship inertia,” since some couples who otherwise would not have married end up married partly as a result of cohabiting. Stanley calls this “sliding versus deciding,” because moving in together is a step that happens rather quickly for many couples—most say cohabitation “just happened,” as focus group research in Australia reported—as opposed to being a decision that involved deliberate thought.
Sliding or not, cohabiting couples who aren’t necessarily thinking about kids yet probably believe that they value the quality of their relationship in the moment. On the topic of relationship quality, though, the comparative research continues to show benefits in the marriage camp. A 2015 study conducted at Bowling Green University and published in the Journal of Family Issues found that married couples who had not lived together before getting married reported higher rates of relationship quality than cohabiting couples.
Would cohabitation agreements help cohabiting couples achieve more relationship quality and family stability than cohabiting couples who do not enter into such agreements? It’s hard to say. But with the current research, cohabiting couples who are already in agreement that they are interested in the long haul may be wise to consider marriage instead.
Mary Rose Somarriba is a writer living in Cleveland and contributing editor for Verily Magazine.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.