Living together is not a rehearsal for marriage, says prof

Cohabitation and marriage are not equal – especially for young women – and living together before marriage actually increases the risk of divorce, an analysis by York University Professor Anne-Marie Ambert (right) has found.

Ambert, a professor of sociology in York’s Faculty of Arts, reviewed a large amount of research in the field to compare legally-sanctioned marriage with cohabitation, which entails fewer legal and other responsibilities. Her review revealed that, in general, women may benefit from cohabitation less than men.

“People still think it’s good for a marriage to cohabit first, but in fact, cohabitation isn’t a trial marriage, ” says Ambert. “It’s entirely false that cohabitation is good for marriage.”

At least in Canada, the US and Great Britain, couples who cohabit before marriage divorce more than others, Ambert says, and there is evidence that the experience of a less secure, committed and faithful cohabitation shapes subsequent marital behaviour.

Her analysis of marriage and cohabitation examined the pros and cons of each at a time when the marriage rate is falling and cohabiting is on the rise. While the marriage rate in Canada fell from 7.1 per 1,000 population in 1990 to 5.0 per 1,000 in 2001, the percentage of Canadian couples who were cohabiting increased, especially in Quebec. In 2001, 16 per cent of the couples in Canada were cohabiting rather than married, including almost 30 per cent in Quebec.

Ambert concludes in her research, released as part of a series by the Vanier Institute of the Family, that there are many types of cohabitation and different results based on the level of commitment. “Some people start cohabiting on the second or third date, so you have glorified dating. Some are looking at the longer term, some intend to get married and some are very committed but are not going to marry. For each of these types there is a different level of stability and commitment and happiness, especially for women,” she says.

For some couples – especially older ones – cohabiting may benefit both parties and carry fewer risks than for the young, Ambert says, because older males may need a partner as much or even more than females. However, when it comes to children, cohabiting and marriage are not equal. 

“Even when parents do not judge their marriage to be the happiest, children still benefit from it. What is important to children above all else is the care they receive from their parents – not whether their parents are madly in love with each other. The latter is an adult perspective,” she says.

More about Anne-Marie Ambert

Ambert specializes in parent-child relationships, the social construction of childhood and parenthood, and the effects of delinquency on parents. She has authored several books including Families in the New Millennium (2001) and The Web of Poverty (1998), as well as numerous articles and book chapters on related topics. Her teaching interests include the family, poverty, adult development, mental health, gerontology, and research methods. Ambert is a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Marriage and the Family.