NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 15, 2005

While increasing numbers of young people, and especially young women, think that cohabitation prepares a couple for matrimony, a study by sociologist David Eggebeen at Pennsylvania State University suggests that living together without a wedding band may thwart the kind of intergenerational ties that often make for a successful marriage or relationship.

Eggebeen parsed data from the first wave (1987-88) of the National Survey of Families and Households, limiting his analysis to more than 3,800 young adult respondents (ages 19-30) who have at least one living parent.

  • He found that cohabitants are significantly less likely to be -- relative to their married peers -- in "exchange relationships" with parents.
  • They are less likely to give help to their parents, to receive help from their parents, and to turn to their parents in an emergency.

The correlation held true even in tests that controlled for a variety of characteristics of the young adults, their parents, and the relationships between them:

  • Those characteristics included the extent of parental contact, eliminating the possibility that the pattern was due to cohabitants having a distant or strained relationship with their parents.
  • Furthermore, the exchange dynamic weakened the longer a couple cohabited, a finding contrary to what Eggebeen had anticipated.

Given that "receiving parental support" was the starkest difference between married and cohabiting couples, the sociologist theorizes that parents -- unsure of their role when their children cohabit -- might simply retreat from their children. But he also speculates that cohabitants may place fewer demands on parents and, relative to their married peers, are less likely to participate in extended family activities, including vacations, holidays, and special events.

Source: David J. Eggebeen, "Cohabitation and Exchanges of Support," Social Forces, Vol. 83, No. 83, March 2005.


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