Cohabitating is more acceptable ("try it before you buy it"), with 11 million cohabitators in the US today, 18% in their 20s, 35% in their 30s, 20% in their 40s, and 14% in their 50s. Thus, cohabitating straight couples in therapy may have a different level and kind of commitment. This means that some traditional kinds of family and couples therapy may presume a level of family cohesiveness that cohabitators may not (yet) have.

Gay and lesbian couples already define their relationships and communicate in different ways. Domestic Partnership Recognition adds a whole new layer. Is this just like marriage? They may be very different from cohabitating couples, as well as married couples.

Are gay and lesbian couples like straight couples?

Gay and Lesbian Couples Research: A case of similarities of same-sex and cross-sex couples, differences between gay and lesbian couples

Gottman of the University of Washington and Robert Levenson of the University of California at Berkeley both have over ten year studying couples. For this report, they studied 21 gay and 21 lesbian couples, and report relationship satisfaction and quality are about the same across all couple types (straight, gay, lesbian), supporting Kurdek and Schwartz in that gay and lesbian relationships are comparable to straight relationships in many ways. Gays and lesbians pair off for many of the same reasons straight people do - for romance, companionship, child-rearing and face additional external pressures - rejection from homophobic friends and relatives, job discrimination and prohibitions against same-sex marriage.

Unique aspects of gay and lesbian couples were:

  • gay/lesbian couples are less impacted by negative conflict, using more affection and humor in their startups, responding more positively to partners raising issues, and taking negative comments less personally, both at the time of the argument and after the argument. Gottman offers gay and lesbian couples may be better able to accept some level of negativity in their relationships. "This trend suggests that gay and lesbian partners have a tendency to accept some degree of negativity without taking it personally."
  • gay/lesbian couples argue more constructively, using fewer controlling and hostile tactics compared to straight couples, suggesting "fairness and power-sharing between the partners is more important and more common in gay and lesbian relationships than in straight ones."
  • when gay and lesbian couples are having difficulties, they show lower levels of physiological arousal and can calm themselves to prevent over-reaction or emotional shutdown. Straight couples tend to stay worked up after a conflict, while gay and lesbian partners were better able to soothe each other and reconnect.

What do we know about cohabitation and marriage?

From the CDC Study:

  • the probability of a relationship ending within 5 years is 20% for marrieds, 49% for cohabitators; after 10 years is 33% for married, 62% for cohabitators
  • 75% of Black women are likely to marry at some point in their lives, compared to 91% of White women
  • the percentage of cohabitations that turn to marriage within 5 years are 75% for White women, 61% for Hispanic women, and 48% for Black women
  • cohabitation is more likely to lead to marriage in prosperous areas (27% more likely for White women, 13% more likely for Black women)
  • 54% of divorced women remarry in 5 years (58% for White women, 44% for Hispanic women, and 32% for Black women)
  • cohabitation is less likely to turn to marriage if the woman has ever been raped (34% vs. 17% for all women, 60% vs. 40% for White women, 59% vs. 54% for Black women), and history of rape leads to slightly lower likelihood of cohabitating and marrying again, and re-divorce after 5 years (29% vs. 20% for all women)

From Amato (1996):

  • cohabitation prior to marriage was 4%, 9%, and 17% more likely if the husband's, wife's, or both partners' parents had divorced, and 59% more likely to predict divorce

From Margolin (1992)

  • over 80% of child abuse in his study occurred in single-parent families.
  • the boyfriend typically provided only 16% of all childcare, but was responsible for 69% of all abuse reports, with 59% of the abuse happening while the mother was in the home
  • male caretakers perpetrate 4.2 times more abuse than we would predict based on their child contact
  • unrelated male caretakers are 4 times more likely to abuse than related male caretakers
  • 20% of the abusive boyfriend incidents in Amato's study were preceded by a child "legitimacy comment" and disobedience, while other studies show only 4% of parental child abuse is preceded by direct disobedience
  • almost 35% of the abusive boyfriend incidents happened after the mother intervened in boyfriend-children arguments, or the children intervened in mother-boyfriend arguments.

From Ackerman:

  • children from single parent families were more likely to act out due to greater economical strain and less authoritative parenting and limit setting. Boys especially are at risk perhaps due to insecurity around other male attachment figures. 28% of cohabitating mothers had serial male partners, and this predicted acting out in first grade

Is cohabitation the same as marriage?

Waite and Gallagher argue that the promise of permanency is what makes marriage more beneficial than simply living together. This allows each to direct their resources to different areas and specialize. Instead of having to be adequate in all areas, they can divide their responsibilities and accomplish more. It also allows for the couple to pool resources, serve as additional kinds of support for each other, and protect each other in different ways.

What is so great about being married?

  • Better financial picture - two can live as cheaply as one and a half because they pool everything. When one is ill, loses a job, or needs emotional support, the other spouse is cheaper than a home nurse, credit card interest, or therapist. Married men get better performance appraisals, miss less work, obtain more promotions, and make more money than cohabitators. Married white women earn 4% more and black women earn 10% more than their single peers.
  • longer life - mortality rates for single men are 250% higher than married men, and rates for single women are 50% higher than for married women. 9 of 10 married people alive at age 48 are alive at 65, while only 6 of 10 single men and 8 of 10 single women do.
  • better mental health - married men are half as likely to commit suicide as single men, and one third as likely as divorced men. Married people report lower levels of depression and distress, and 40% say they are very happy with their lives, compared to about 25% in single people.
  • less substance abuse - single men drink twice as much as married men, and one out of four says his drinking causes problems for him. Only one of seven married men says the same. One out of six single men abstains from alcohol, but one in four married men do.
  • better sex - 40% of married people have sex twice a week, compared to 20-25% of single and cohabitating people. About 40% of married women and 50% of married men said their sex life was emotionally and physically satisfying, compared to about 30% of cohabitating women and 38% of cohabitating men.

Why can't cohabitation be the same?

  • poorer financial picture - cohabitators are less likely to support each other financially in crises, to specialize in different areas in the home, and to manage their money together. Income in cohabitating families is less than half that of married families. If your partner spends money extravagantly, there's not much you can say so long as the bills are paid. If your spouse does it, you would have plenty to say, and it is easier for spouses to have access to and monitor each other's finances.
  • shorter life - cohabitators are also less likely to monitor each others' health, remind about doctor's appointments, and speak up about unhealthy behaviors or act to increase safety. Non-married women are 5x and non-married men 4x more likely to be victims of crime.
  • commitment - cohabitators are less likely to emotionally support each other. They hold more positive ideas about divorce, more negative attitudes about marriage in general, and stress career and leisure life more than family compared to married peers.
  • abuse - non-biologically related males contribute only 2% of the childcare, but are responsible for almost half the reported non-parent abuse incidents.
  • sex - cohabitators are less likely to be sexually faithful, and thus more prone to worry about sexually transmitted diseases, less motivated to work to improve their sexual relationship, and more likely to deal with sexual jealousy.