Put a Ring on It?

January 19, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Get married?  Or just live together?

Lisa Wade’s “Why I Am Not Married” post was one of the most popular Sociological Images entries of 2011.  It elicited over 100 comments – high even for SocImages. 

Lisa included a defense of her partner’s and her decision not to seek the state’s approval of their relationship.  The statement was personal (and courageous).  But the only systematic research cited was, I think, the Pew report on the decline in marriage in the US.

Clearly, fewer couples are putting a ring on it. Since 1960, the percent married has declined from 72% to just above half.  During this same period, the percentage of couples living together increased by a factor of ten.  Many of those couples eventually marry, and many break up.  Only about 10% remain living together unmarried for more than five years. (See the Annual Review article here.)

As you can imagine, there is much hand-wringing in certain quarters over the decline in marriage.  And indeed, some research supports the idea that marriage is the way to go – that married couples are healthier, wealthier, happier, less likely to break up, and just generally better.  (For an example of the pro-marriage view –  “Why Marriage Is Better than Cohabitation” – go here and probably lots of other places).  However, most of  these comparison studies are cross-sectional.  They compare the married and the cohabiting at a single point in time, so it’s hard to know what is causing what.  If we find that marrieds are happier, for example, we still don’t know whether it’s because marriage causes happiness or because happy people are more likely to marry.

Determining cause and effect requires longitudinal analysis – following couples over time.  A new study by Kelly Musick, to be published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, did just that, looking at data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH).  She tracked data on marrying and cohabiting couples over six years.  Here’s her conclusion as reported in a National Council on Family Relations press release (they publish the journal).
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.


african girl said...

It really make sense! I'm really glad I come across to your blog.

Well,in my opinion being married is important since most people wanted to experience. We humans tend to find partner in life so that when we get older someone will take good care for us.

For today's generation I don't know if it is still valued. No matter how cruel the situation is still it depends upon the couple to maintain the spark to their relationship.

U.S married couple usually end in divorce and I don't know their reasons. Anyways, I really appreciate how you illustrate the current issues of marriage and thanks for that.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for commenting. Actually, "most" US marriages don't end in divorce. The highest that number has ever been is 40%, and it has been declining for the last ten years or more. Of course, the reasons for marriage and divorce, and the consequences of these for the couple and for the society, can be different in different countries.

Thanks for writing -- and reading.