In today’s world of soaring divorce rates, most couples are hesitant to commit themselves to marriage for fear of finding out that they are not really suited to be long-term partners. And yet, it is only natural that two people in a serious relationship would want to share a life together. In such a situation cohabitation or living together without being formally married is increasingly emerging as a popular option for couples who don’t want kids but want to share a life. But at the end of the day, how does this arrangement compare to marriage?
Effort into the relationship
One of the biggest reasons why married couples drift apart is because they begin to take each other for granted. Marriage brings about a sense of other person belonging to you so that you no longer feel the need to work for the relationship that you had been doing when you were dating the same person. Living together on the other hand, prevents partners from completely taking each other for granted. Each is aware that if this does not work, the other person is free to leave. This realization may make both partners more conscious of nurturing their relationship and striving to make a success of it. In fact cohabiting couples even claim that it is the possibility of leaving that keeps their relationship “fresh” and motivates them to work at it whereas married couples are more likely to begin to let things slide and thus stop nurturing the relationship.
However, this kind of hopping from one living arrangement to another among cohabiting couples can hardly allow one to fully experience the joys of a relationship. When a person is conscious that his/her partner may walk out any moment, how secure or faithful can the relationship be. Moreover this fear can also prevent a couple from living honest lives, in other words, from being who they really are. A marriage on the other hand, allows couples the freedom to be their real selves while at the same time enjoining upon them the responsibility of nurturing the relationship.
Less legal complications
In civil societies, divorce confers varied obligations and commitments on each partner. and in times when marriages are breaking up more frequently than ever, living together offers a way out to escape the high costs of divorce in the form of spousal and/or child support, division of marital property and so on. An unmarried couple can separate informally without the intervention of a court. Though the court does have power to make orders relating to the care of the children, neither partner has a legal duty to support the other financially. Since living together is not burdened with the legal obligations of a marriage, many couples opt for it so that they can leave in case they find they are not compatible.
However the same flexibility which makes a live-in relationship less messy to walk out of, may leave a partner disadvantaged in case the relationship is unequal. Civil laws of a judicial system confer certain obligations to each of the partners in a marriage and in case a marital relationship breaks up, a partner disadvantaged in terms of finances or property can look to the divorce courts for financial sustenance from the more resourceful spouse. In contrast laws governing partner obligations in a live-in relationship are still vague; in the UK for instance a partner usually has no rights to a house owned in the other partner’s name1 – in case of a falling out, the former can stay on in the house only if the property is jointly owned. Likewise for inheritance and financial support – under UK law, if one partner gives the other housekeeping money, any property brought with savings from it will probably belong to the person giving the money. This is different from the position in marriage where savings from the housekeeping money would in a court dispute usually be divided equally between the husband and wife. In the US, unless you define your partnership through a legal cohabitation contract, the law may view you as strangers in the case of a breakup or death. Regardless of how close your relationship is with your partner, living together does not automatically entitle either one of you to the rights and protections afforded to married couples.
The above point makes it evident that the absence of legal obligations on cohabiting couples can act as a double-edged sword. If on one hand it makes a relationship less messy to walk out of, on the other hand in an unequal relationship it leaves a disadvantaged partner more vulnerable to financial hardship. However even this last loophole is being addressed by legal systems in the more emancipated societies. In the UK for instance, a partner in a live-in relationship can go to court for an order to protect him/herself and their children if his/her partner is violent. The court can order the violent partner to leave the home for a certain period of time and, if the court order is not obeyed, the violent partner can be arrested. Again a man can be convicted of raping his partner, regardless whether she is his wife or not. Some safeguards exist in matter of property too. The unmarried partner of a tenant, whether in private or social housing accommodation, will usually have no rights to stay in the accommodation if the tenant asks him/her to leave. However, even an unmarried partner can get short-term rights to stay if he/she applies to court. A court can also transfer a tenancy, whether it is a sole or joint tenancy.
Despite these legal safeguards, obligations of a partner in a live-in relationship can be difficult to enforce in a court of law. In case of marriage and divorce on the other hand, there are clear legal provisions and the court tries as much as possible to ensure that the consequences of a break-up are fair on either partner.
Another advantage of living together is that the arrangement provides a way of getting to know aspects of your partner which might disappoint or you later. If you discover that the person you are living with is extremely irresponsible with money or that he/she has a tendency to get physically violent when upset, it is easier to exit the relationship while still cohabiting. In case of a marriage however there will be legal issues to sort out and in the worst case scenario, kids from the marriage to take care of, in case your partner is emotionally or physically abusive.
Proponents of marriage will however argue that a meaningful and really committed relationship does not require an escape hatch. it is precisely because partners are willing to take each other for better or worse and that they are willing to work together to resolve issues that marriage differs from transitory arrangements like live-in relationships.
The results of a 2004 study2 published in Journal of Marriage and Family found that while couples may consider marriage or think about it, the major reasons of cohabitation are finance, convenience or housing needs. The study, authored by Sharon Sassler, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, included 25 residents of New York City, aged between 25 and 33 who had been living with boyfriend or girlfriend for the past three months at least. As Professor Sassler’s research and many other studies suggest, couple primarily move in with each other while still unmarried for economic convenience. Sharing a house as well as domestic expenses turns out to be cheaper for either partner as compared to maintaining two difference apartments and incurring two sets of living expenses. For instance if both partners are attending the same college, they may find it cheaper to share housing and transport. Moreover when both partners pool in their resources not only can they save on the cost of running a household, they can in fact afford a much better standard of living. Even the chores like paying bills, buying groceries, cooking and cleaning can be shared so that it may be easier to maintain a full-fledged household. While the same conveniences are also available to spouses, marriage brings with it certain legal and financial bindings which vastly dilute the practical advantages that a co-habiting couple is looking for.
The downside of such an arrangement is that once it stops being convenient for one of the partners, it is likely to come to an end. For instance if one partner is laid off at work, or is physically indisposed for reasons of ill-health, the other partner may not want to bear the additional burden for a long period of time. In a marriage on the other hand, the shared life is primarily based on commitment and not convenience, so that even when either partner is unable to contribute, financially or practically, for some time to the arrangement, the latter is not in danger of coming apart.
Alternative to marriage
Couples who cannot get legally married or may have to go through difficult procedures to get legal recognition of their marriage may opt to live together. Such couples may belong to different races, religions, different sexual orientation or may be philosophically opposed to the institution of marriage. The problem is that such a relationship deprives the partners of the full rights and social acceptance enjoyed by married partners under laws of the society.
In the end both marriage and co-habitation have their own pros and cons. even when children are not part of the picture, some couples may prefer the legal protection and social sanction accorded to marital partners while others may choose the greater flexibility that comes with cohabitation. What a couple settles for will ultimately depend on what their priorities and needs are – as individuals as well as in the relationship.
- Advice Guide - Living together and marriage: legal differences
- Sassler, S. (2004), The Process of Entering into Cohabiting Unions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66: 491–505