Do we even need marriage anymore?

Nicole M. King
13 May 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - Divorce law overhaul: is there really any point to marriage anymore?

Recent suggested changes in Britain's divorce legislation have one Telegraph writer pondering why we would ever bother getting married in the first place.

Recognizing the dramatic shift in family formation that has taken place in the last century, Sir James Munby, president of Britain's High Court Family Division, suggested among other measures more legal protection for cohabitors. Radhika Sanghani at the Telegraph praises such moves, and writes, "The idea of spending thousands on what's meant to be 'the best day of your life' - including a dress you'll never, ever wear again - combined with the not insignificant fact that the wedding certificate only requires your father's name and not your mother's, puts me off the whole [marriage] thing." Nonetheless, writes Ms. Sanghani, if she wants any kind of legal protection for herself and her future children, she will probably have to demand one day that her boyfriend "put a ring on it."

Research suggests, however, that both Ms. Sanghani and Sir James seem to have missed the point that marriage and cohabitation are dissimilar in much deeper ways.

The New Research - Marital bliss outshines cohabitation

A generation ago, few dared to suggest that shacking up was anything like holy matrimony. Today, however, increased public disregard for marriage dovetails with a fascination with cohabitation. Yet the research continues to show that marriage remains superior to cohabitation, even in progressive Europe. Indeed, scholars there have established that married persons not only report significantly higher levels of "relationship satisfaction" but also are less likely to have considered breaking up than their cohabiting peers, even cohabitants who are planning to marry.

Using data from the first wave (2003-07) of the Generations and Gender Survey, researchers associated with Statistics Norway and Erasmus University in Rotterdam discovered key differences between the two living arrangements in their study of 42,000 married or cohabiting adults, ages 18 to 55, in eight European countries. In their initial round of tests, they found that cohabitants without plans to marry reported lower levels of relationship satisfaction, while cohabitants with plans to marry their current lover had higher levels of satisfaction, than respondents who were married. The latter correlation, however, can be misleading. The mean difference, the researchers note, was small, yielding a low effect size. More important, in the full statistical model with a wide range of controls, both types of cohabitants registered significantly lower levels of relationship satisfaction than did married individuals (p < 0.001 for those with no intent to marry; p < 0.01 for those with intent to marry).

Cohabitants in the eight countries were also more likely to have considered dissolving their relationship in the previous year than were married respondents, a pattern that was robust for both types of cohabitants and even stronger for those without nuptial plans (p < 0.001 vs. p < 0.01).

While the researchers found this "cohabitation gap" in every country they studied, the relationship-quality gap was smaller in countries where cohabitation is more prevalent (Norway, France, and the Netherlands) and larger in countries where the practice is less prevalent (Russia, Romania, and Germany). In all eight of the countries studied, cohabitants with no plans to marry were more likely than their married peers to have considered splitting up. What is more, in six of the eight countries, even cohabitants who were planning to wed were more likely to have considered splitting up than their married peers.

Ironically, the researchers seem more taken with these modest variations between countries than with the glaring differences separating cohabiting Europeans from married Europeans. So while conceding "that marriage and cohabitation continue to be diverse across Europe," they curiously imagine that the disparities separating marriage from cohabitation might disappear "if cohabitation continues to spread and becomes a normative experience across Europe."

These scholars are certainly free to hope for such a social future. However, their own data would clearly justify a recommendation that Europeans rediscover matrimony, a social relationship that fosters higher levels of happiness and stability, and reject cohabitation, a social arrangement that delivers less favorable outcomes. The failure of scholars like this trio to recognize this reality only illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of twenty-first century sociology.