Once upon a time in the West, a couple living together without being married first was considered highly unorthodox. Nowadays, it’s more common to find cohabiting couples, those in a variety of relationship types, that aren’t married. People often say “marriage changes everything,” providing couples with an emotional stability that is not possible to get elsewhere, but a new study due to be published in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that this is unfounded. When it comes to emotional health, young couples – and especially women – are just as happy moving in together as they are getting married.
In order to investigate the emotional stability of unmarried and married cohabiting couples, data was mined from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), a wide-ranging study of 8,700 people who were born between 1980 and 1984. They were interviewed every other year from 2000 to 2010, with detailed questions relating to relationship satisfaction, their mental health, and how emotionally distressed they were day-to-day and overall.
In terms of their emotional stress, they were asked to assign their thoughts and feelings to a numerical scale: 1 would mean they were stressed all of the time, 4 would mean the opposite. A team of researchers from Ohio State University used this decade’s worth of data to try and compare the emotional stress patterns of various types of heterosexual couples.
Image credit: Marriage isn’t as important for emotional stability as you might think. Rock and Wasp/Shutterstock
According to NLSY97, single young women experience a notable decline in emotional distress when they move in with their romantic partner for the first time – just as much of a decline as when they went straight into marriage for the first time. Men, on the other hand, only experience this decline when they marry for the first time, but not when they cohabit with their romantic partner for the first time. This, the authors suggest, may be due to men tending to view cohabitation as a long-term test of the strength of a relationship, rather than a sign that it has definitely succeeded.
Claire Kamp Dush, associate professor of human sciences at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, said in a statement: “We’re finding that marriage isn’t necessary to reap the benefits of living together, at least when it comes to emotional health.”
If a second relationship was forged, whether they moved in with their second partner or got married to them, both men and women received relatively similar emotional upticks. Dush hypothesizes that this effect may be due to learning from experience: “The young people in our study may be selecting better partners for themselves the second time around, which is why they are seeing a drop in emotional distress.”
It must be noted, however, that only emotional distress was tracked through this 10-year-long dataset. The authors point out that other indicators – such as health status, substance abuse or violent tendencies – may be more applicable to men as indicators of emotional well-being than directly asking them about their stress levels.
Perhaps most curiously, the study found that couples who gave birth to a child showed major decreases in emotional distress compared to those who did not. Of course, it is entirely possible that the joy associated with having a child occurs simultaneously with an increase in other types of stress.