Cohabiting couples experience greater happiness and self esteem
In honor of Valentine’s Day and all the ways you may be celebrating with or without a romantic partner, let’s take a look at some new research that reveals that alternatives to traditional marriage could lead to more happiness.
“Marriage has long been an important social institution, but in recent decades western societies have experienced increases in cohabitation, before or instead of marriage, and increases in children born outside of marriage,” says Dr. Kelly Musick, Associate Professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. “These changes have blurred the boundaries of marriage, leading to questions about what difference marriage makes in comparison to alternatives.”
A new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family reveals that married couples experience few advantages for psychological well-being, health, or social ties compared to unmarried couples who live together. Both marriage and cohabitation provide benefits over being single.
This study compares marriage to cohabitation while using a fixed-effects approach that focuses on what changes when single men and women move into marriage or cohabitation. The study focused on key areas of well-being, considering questions on happiness, levels of depression, health, and social ties.
The results showed a spike in well-being immediately following both marriage and cohabitation as couples experienced a honeymoon period with higher levels of happiness and fewer depressive symptoms compared to singles. However, these advantages were short lived.
“We found that differences between marriage and cohabitation tend to be small and dissipate after a honeymoon period. Also while married couples experienced health gains—likely linked to the formal benefits of marriage such as shared healthcare plans—cohabiting couples experienced greater gains in happiness and self-esteem. For some, cohabitation may come with fewer unwanted obligations than marriage and allow for more flexibility, autonomy, and personal growth” says Musick.
Though happier, marriage and cohabitation both resulted in less contact with parents and friends compared to remaining single—and these effects appeared to persist over time. This likely comes as no surprise to anyone in a committed relationship of any kind, however.
“Compared to most industrial countries, America continues to value marriage above other family forms,” concludes Musick. “However our research shows that marriage is by no means unique in promoting well-being and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits.”