Expert Commentary

Differences in work and income in cohabitation and marriage

2012 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family on the differences between couples that formalize their union and those that cohabit but remain unmarried.

Two women moving in (iStock)

As of 2010, 58% of adult women 44 and under had lived with an opposite-sex unmarried partner in the past few years; that figure was 33% for that group roughly two decades prior, according to the National Center for Marriage and Family Research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that among women, “68% of unions formed in 1997-2001 began as a cohabitation rather than as a marriage,” and the rate of all women cohabiting increased from 3.0% in 1982 to 11% in 2006-2010. These relationships can be economically beneficial for couples, but that is not always the case — particularly for lower-income individuals, as the Pew Research Center notes. Moreover, as cohabitation before marriage becomes more prevalent, it is becoming less of a factor in predicting divorce.

Although the majority of new marriages in the United States begin with unmarried cohabitation, little research has focused on the specific impacts of changing one’s relationship status from “cohabiting” to “married.” The academic literature has generally found that once couples establish “enforceable trust” — a degree of security in the permanence of the relationship — they tend toward increased “specialization,” or the fulfillment of gender roles. A 2012 study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, “Reassessing Differences in Work and Income in Cohabitation and Marriage,” used the 2002 wave of the National Survey of Families and Households to measure various outcomes among 638 married or cohabiting individuals.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Marriage is associated with increases in men’s income. Across the sample, average income for males was higher in each progressive stage of cohabitation toward marriage.
  • Men’s labor-force participation rates showed no significant change in relation to relationship status or even intended relationship status.
  • Women married five or more years had significantly fewer working hours compared with those married for less than five years. For the latter group, the women worked nearly the same number of hours as cohabiters with uncertain marriage plans.
  • Men’s housework hours did not significantly change across relationship types, while women’s housework hours were significantly higher when married rather than cohabiting.

The author concludes: “The areas in which recent marriage was associated with a clear difference in behavior compared with cohabiters with strong marriage plans included women’s labor force participation rates, which were lower among recently married premarital cohabiters, and the gap between ideal and usual work hours of women, which was marginally larger among recently married premarital cohabiters.”

For more information and data on women in the work force, see “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook,” a 2012 report from the U.S Department of Labor.

Tags: women and work