Health & Medicine

Knowing the ground rules of cohabiting

The number of cohabiting couples is sharply rising. The latest Census Bureau figures show that 4.85 million unmarried partners share the same address, an eightfold increase since 1970.

By 2002, half of all women between the ages of 15 and 44 had lived with an unmarried partner. But even though living together is old hat, it may not be the best decision for two people to make.

Researcher Linda Waite, professor of sociology at University of Chicago, describes two distinct cohabiting arrangements that result in vastly different outcomes. Couples who cohabit with the intention of marrying share similarities with married people and generally experience positive outcomes. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, half of cohabiting couples marry within three years of moving in together and have marriages that last for at least 10 years.

Those who live together without the intention of marrying, however, are more apt to have unstable, short-term relationships with few social or psychological benefits. Partners tend to be overly optimistic about the potential success of their living arrangements, especially women with children who have the most to lose should the partnership dissolve. But the optimism is usually unwarranted.

Cohabiting couples join forces with minimal discussion of important issues, such as economic security or emotional compatibility that lay the groundwork for a successful relationship. These impetuous couples have more incidents of domestic abuse. They’re also less monogamous, even though all couples studied expected their relationships to be sexually exclusive.

Even when cohabiting couples marry, they’re often less dedicated to the well-being of their relationships, says Scott Stanley, a psychologist at the University of Denver. He adds, “The problem is one of inertia.” Once a couple moves in together and commingles finances, cookware and furniture, it’s difficult to break up. They may ultimately decide to marry because it’s more convenient than starting over. Still, a ho-hum attitude doesn’t bode well for long-term stability and happiness.

The rapid growth in cohabiting families has particular consequences for the children involved in those relationships. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, an estimated 40 percent of children in the U.S. will live with their unmarried mother and her boyfriend some time before their 16th birthday. Boys and girls raised in these circumstances are more apt to struggle in school, suffer from emotional problems and depression, and develop behavioral problems and delinquency.

Children living with an unrelated adult are at an increased danger of being physically or sexually abused. According to research released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children living with a parent and the parent’s live-in partner were eight times more likely to suffer maltreatment. Another study found that youngsters living with unrelated adults were 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries as children living with two biological parents.

Even discipline is affected. Dr. Waite found that “the nonparent partner — the man in the substantial majority of cases — has no explicit legal, financial, supervisory or custodial rights or responsibilities regarding the children of his partner.” This lack of authority creates weak, ambiguous adult relationships that render parenting responsibilities nearly impossible.

Look before you leap into cohabitation

Thinking of moving in together without tying the knot?

Seriously consider these factors to avoid making a huge mistake:

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit