Ten Years of Marriage and Cohabitation Research in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues

  • Published: 22 October 2020
  • Volume 42 , pages 52–61, ( 2021 )

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  • Jeffrey Dew 1  

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I reviewed the 36 marriage and cohabitation studies from the Journal of Family and Economic Issues articles published between 2010–2019. Nearly all of the studies used quantitative methods, and two-thirds of them used publicly available nationally-representative data. The studies fell into roughly five, unevenly sized groups: family structure, relationship quality, division of labor/employment, money management, and an “other” category. Suggestions for future research include applying some of the important questions within the articles to underrepresented groups, further examining the process of how finances and relationship quality interrelate and doing more applied and translational research.

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Financial issues and adult romantic relationships interface in many important ways. Whether in marriage or cohabitation, living with a romantic partner may modify how one approaches financial issues (e.g., Kenney 2004 ). This association may work in the other direction, too; financial issues may influence relationship quality (see Dew 2016 for a review).

Although many scholars study marriage and cohabitation, few of them study these couples within the financial contexts that surround them or the financial aspects that may influence the relationship processes themselves. The Journal of Family and Economic Issues , therefore, is a key outlet where scholars can publish studies that explore the nexus of financial issues and adult romantic relationships.

This review focuses on the 36 studies of marriage and cohabitation from 2010–2019 in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues . The editor/editorial staff of JFEI assigned these studies to me. In the first section, I provide a synopsis of the articles that I reviewed. In the second section, I discuss the future research directions that might further build this topic. For the purposes of this review, I define marriage as two adults whose union has been legally recognized by a state entity. Cohabitation, by way of contrast, generally denotes two unmarried persons living together in a sexual union. Footnote 1

Social norms and behaviors regarding family structure have shifted over the past 60 years. For example, 30% of all US households with children present were single-parent households in 2019 (United States Census Bureau 2020 ) . In 1960, the comparable statistic was 9%. Furthermore, an analysis of US data from 2011–2015 suggested that around 16% of people aged 18–44 cohabited during that time (Nugent and Daugherty 2018 ). Comparable statistics for 1960 do not exist. Governments and researchers did not ask individuals if they were cohabiting due to the social stigma attached to it at the time in the United States. Additionally, in 1960 72% of US adults were married; in 2016, the percentage has dropped to only 50% (Parker and Stepler 2017 ). I could cite similar statistics regarding changes in the average age at first marriage, the total fertility rate, and so forth.

At the same time family structures were changing, national economies all over the world fluctuated as well. In the US, manufacturing jobs decreased, and service sector jobs increased. Unionized jobs, which often provided living wages regardless of individuals’ education level, declined. Men’s wages stagnated after accounting for inflation. Many married women with young children in the home moved into the paid labor force.

Thus, although no one aspect, theme, or methodology links the 36 studies I reviewed, many of them examined issues related to family structure and/or economic changes that have occurred over the past sixty years in the US and other nations. Many researchers applied “older” questions regarding financial and family issues to newer and growing family forms. Other researchers updated the fields’ knowledge regarding previous findings. Still others examined existing family and finance process models and added additional nuance.

Research Methods of the Studies

The methods and analyses that scholars use as they examine the association between family and financial issues can strongly influence the findings. Consequently, as I reviewed the studies, I noted the analyses the authors’ used to examine their data. I also studied the data, samples, and demographic characteristics of the participants. I offer an overview of the methodology here.

Types of Analyses

As a body, the researchers used quantitative analyses more than any other type. That is, of the 36 articles, 30 used quantitative analyses. Three studies used qualitative analyses, one study used a mixed methods design, one study was a theoretical piece, and one study was an erratum.

Data, Samples, and Demographics

Of the 30 studies that used quantitative analyses, 21 used large data sets. I categorized any study as using a large data set if the sample size was at least 900 participants/couples, etc. I used this cutoff because when a study size reaches or exceeds 900 participants, single-item measures have psychometric properties similar to multi-item scales (Johnson 1993 ). All other things equal, larger sample sizes yield more precise estimates. Most of these data sets were publicly available (e.g., the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the General Social Survey), though a few were large proprietary data sets (e.g., the Survey of Marital Generosity).

Another important consideration was whether researchers studied marriage and cohabitation among underrepresented populations. Understanding the research coverage of these underrepresented groups is important and is one of the recommendations I make for future research (see below). Studies using large representative samples facilitate understanding adult romantic relationships. They may, however, miss crucial relationship or financial processes that vary within and across subgroups. Thus, I did not count these large data sets as focusing on underrepresented groups.

For the purposes of this review, I categorized a study as examining an underrepresented group if the sample was largely composed of individuals from race/ethnic minority groups, interracial couples, sexual minorities, low-income families, or from countries outside the United States. Footnote 2 Although the 21 studies that used large US national samples obviously included individuals from some of those groups, the studies did not focus on underrepresented groups. Some of the other quantitative studies used convenience sampling techniques, but still did not explicitly sample any underrepresented groups.

Using these criteria, nine of the studies I reviewed focused on underrepresented populations. Jones ( 2010 ) and Jang and Danes ( 2016 ) studied couples who were racially/ethnically intermarried. Oshio et al. ( 2013 ) used data from the General Social Surveys in Korea, Japan, and China. Evertsson and Nyman ( 2014 ) had a Swedish sample. Further, 50% of the couples in their study were in same-sex relationships. The Maclean et al. ( 2016 ) research took place in Australia, while Cantillon et al. ( 2016 ) took place in Ireland. Finally, Addo ( 2017 ), Högnäs and Williams ( 2017 ), and Jamison ( 2018 ) focused on low-income couples.

Creating Relationship Themes/Domains

As I reviewed the articles, I categorized them based on what I felt was the overarching theme of each piece. I have published many studies on relationship formation and dissolutionas well as studies examining the role of financial issues within adult romantic relationships. I have also edited two special issues in peer-reviewed journals on money and relationships and written several review articles and public scholarship pieces regarding the subject. Consequently, I used my own expertise to assign the studies to different domains. From my previous experience, I knew that studies often focus on financial issues and family structure issues (e.g., the financial consequences of divorce). I also knew that many previous studies have focused on relationship quality or process issues as they relate to couples’ finances (e.g., the association between consumer debt and relationship happiness). Finally, I knew that employment and the division of household labor (e.g., the paid labor force participation of mothers) have been important research foci in many fields for at least five decades. I established these three domains prior to categorizing the studies. After putting studies that belonged in the domains of family structure, relationship quality, and labor/employment, I examined the remaining studies. I created a fourth domain, financial management, from some of those studies. The last five studies did not fit in any of these categories or with each other.

Important Findings

Family structure.

As family forms and macro-economic characteristics have shifted, scholars have examined how these changes have influenced individuals, families, and societies. For example, one of the first studies linking changing family structure and child poverty was released in the early 1990’s (Eggebeen and Lichter 1991 ). Given the enormity of the social changes, it is not surprising that studies of family structure, whether as a predictor or as an outcome, was the domain that had the most articles in my review. These articles used family structure as either a main independent variable or as the dependent variable. Sub-themes in this area included the association between family structure and financial issues, the association between family structure and other outcomes, and marital stability. I assigned 12 articles to the category of family structure.

Many of these studies focused on how changing/new family structures related to financial issues. For example, one study researched whether, and under what conditions, men enjoyed a cohabitation premium (i.e., higher wages) relative to both single, non-cohabiting men, and married men (Mamun 2012 ). Men in cohabitations that led to marriage realized a wage premium relative to single men; men in other types of cohabitations did not. Married men enjoyed the largest wage premium.

Painter and Vespa ( 2012 ) also examined financial issues regarding newer family forms by comparing rates of net-worth gain between those who married without cohabiting first, and those who married after cohabitation. Interestingly, the rate of net-worth gain was higher for those who cohabited prior to marriage. Painter and Vespa studied the financial changes closely and found that those who married following a cohabitation had more debt when they married, and so they could increase their net-worth more quickly by paying debt down. Further, those who had cohabited increased their home-equity more quickly.

As an alternative to studying old questions using newer family forms, some of the studies that researched the association between family structure and finances added nuance to previous findings. For example, Tamborini et al. ( 2012 ) estimated the changes in women’s labor force participation before and after divorce. Although this question has been studied for decades, these scholars studied additional moderators that might influence the association among divorce, changes in women’s labor force participation, and changes in earnings. They found that education was positively associated with earnings gains. Having a child after the divorce was negatively associated.

In a similar study, Frech et al. ( 2017 ) investigated the association between divorce and women’s net worth. In the initial models, divorce reduced women’s overall net-worth as previous studies have demonstrated. However, after using advanced modeling techniques to account for selection into divorce and selection into remarriage, the difference between stably married wives and divorced wives who had remarried disappeared. The divorce difference was still present for divorced women who had not remarried and remarried women who went through another divorce.

Sharma ( 2015 ) researched wealth change for one of the fastest growing group of divorced persons–individuals who are 50 years or older. This is an important population to study because the divorce rate has steadily decreased for the past 40 years except for those who are 50 years or older (Allred 2019 ). For example, for women aged 50 or older, the divorce rate per 1000 married women has increased from 4.9 in 1990 to 10.3 in 2017 (Allred 2019 ). Sharma found that both older men and women lost money following a divorce; the average loss was between $369,000 and $376,000. Interestingly, the difference between men’s and women’s loss was not statistically significant, unlike other studies of couples at younger ages (e.g., Zagorsky 2005 ).

Other studies expanded the field by combining novel approaches with timely new questions. For example, using qualitative methods and a diverse sample, Jamison ( 2018 ) examined participants’ transitions into and out of residential cohabitation (i.e., living in the same domicile in an unmarried sexual union), as well as into and out of relationships (i.e., considering oneself in a couple). The innovative insight of this piece is that residential cohabitation and one’s romantic relationship may or may not overlap, especially among low-income cohabiters. Indeed, sometimes individuals would stop a residential cohabitation for various reasons, while still considering themselves a romantic couple. Other times, individuals who had been a couple in the past, but who had broken up, would reunite as a couple and as residential cohabiters. Jamison’s ( 2018 ) qualitative study captured the fluidity of these relationships.

The use of novel approaches extended to policy issues. MacLean et al. ( 2016 ) used a series of hypothetical vignettes to assess Australian participants’ views of whether, and under what conditions, step-fathers should financially support their step-children. They found that marriage and the employment status of the step-children’s mother raised people’s expectations that a man would financially support his step-children. Lerman et al. ( 2018 ) investigated variation in state-level economic indicators as a function of the proportion of married adults and/or the proportion of married parents. Their results suggested that states that had higher proportions of married adults and/or married parents also had higher per capita GDP levels, equivalent-adult adjusted median household incomes, and median personal incomes. Further, these states had lower child poverty levels.

Other studies examined family structure issues, without focusing on financial outcomes or predictors. For example, Jones ( 2010 ) assessed the stability of interracial marriages and found that most stability differences between interracial marriages and racially homogenous marriages attenuated after controlling for demographic characteristics. Kendall ( 2011 ) found no difference across state level divorce rates based on their level of broadband internet penetrations. Using the General Social Survey (US), Horner ( 2014 ) found that women’s happiness declined when their state moved to a low-barrier-to-divorce regime. Men, by way of contrast, increased their happiness. Hussey et al. ( 2016 ) studied the effects of moving from a two-parent household to a one-parent household on adolescent outcomes. They used propensity score matching to partly mitigate selection issues and found negative effects in the short term, medium term, and long term.

These many studies demonstrate the utility of both examining “old” research questions in the context of growing family forms and of striving to add nuance to “old” findings. For example, finding a male cohabitation premium among only men who transitioned to marriage (Mamun 2012 ) indicates that cohabiting unions are not monolithic relationships. This finding also further reinforces the link previous studies have found between marriage and upward economic mobility. Finding that selection accounts for wealth differences between never-divorced and divorced-but-remarried women (Frech et al. 2017 ), generates a new avenue of research. Specifically, this finding suggests that we should examine the characteristics that account for non-divorced women’s higher net worth in a bivariate analyses, but that disappear upon controlling for selection. As family forms continue to change, scholars will likely conduct similar studies.

Relationship Quality

The name of the journal suggests a natural fit for studies of the association between financial issues and adult romantic relationship quality. Eight of the eleven articles I assigned to this domain focused on the interface between financial issues and relationship quality. Three others focused on relationship quality and other issues (e.g., pornography). These studies highlight researchers’ continued interest in the predictors of relationship quality. This interest in unsurprising, given how strongly relationship happiness and individual well-being are correlated (Spuhler and Dew 2019 ).

Four studies examined the association between financial issues and relationship quality using either a unique population and/or a unique predictor. The first, Schramm and William Harris ( 2011 ), used data from low-income couples to study the association between income, government assistance, and different aspects of marital quality. Both receiving government assistance and having an income less than $20,000 was associated with lower marital satisfaction, commitment, and higher levels of divorce-proneness, negative marital interactions, and feeling trapped. An interaction did emerge, however. Couples who had an income level between $20,000–$40,000 and received government assistance reported higher levels of marital satisfaction and commitment than couples with the same income level, but who did not receive government assistance.

Using data from the married women in the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth, Britt and Huston ( 2012 ) studied the association between financial arguments and marital quality. Not surprisingly, they found that the frequency of financial arguments was negatively associated with women’s reported marital satisfaction. Interestingly, by using the longitudinal aspect of the data, they also found that when women reported increased financial arguments over time, they reported lower marital satisfaction. Finally, higher levels of financial conflict at the beginning of marriage was associated with greater likelihood of divorce.

Klein’s ( 2017 ) study tested the association between financial issues and relationship quality and used a unique predictor–changes in home values. Negative price shocks (i.e., declines in home values) were unrelated to the hazard of divorce. However, positive price shocks (i.e., increases in home values) did negatively predict the hazard of divorce. These positive price shocks needed to last at least four years to reduce the likelihood of divorce, though.

LeBaron et al. ( 2018 ) was likewise unique in that they examined how materialism was associated with marital satisfaction. Materialism was negatively associated with marital satisfaction. One’s feelings of importance about marriage partially mediated the association. That is, materialism was related to decreased feelings of marital importance; marital importance was positively related to marital satisfaction.

Many of the studies of the association between financial issues and relationship quality over the past three years have focused on the family stress model of economic pressure and marital distress (Conger et al. 1990 ), or simply “family stress model.” Since its inception in 1990, many scholars have used this model to research the association between negative financial events, feelings of economic pressure, and marital quality. The family stress model suggests that when individuals feel economic pressure, they respond affectively with greater levels of anxiety, depression, and hostility. This in turn increases marital distress (Conger et al. 1990 ).

Ross et al. ( 2017 ), tested the family stress model (Conger et al. 1990 ) in the context of military couples. This research topic is important, given the unique pressures that military couples face (Park 2011 ). Ross et al. ( 2017 ) study is the first of which I know to use the family stress model to examine military couples. Their findings suggested that husbands’ economic pressure was associated with receiving less warmth and greater hostility from their wives. Wives’ economic pressure was likewise related to reports of receiving less warmth from their husbands and increased hostility. Further, wives’ economic pressure was associated with their own reports of giving their husbands less warmth.

Dew and Jackson ( 2018 ) and Dew et al. ( 2018 ) also used the family stress model and assessed relationship attitudes and processes to determine what factors might have helped protect married couples from the difficulties of the 2007–2009 Recession. Both studies used the same national data set of married couples who were surveyed in 2009 shortly after the end of the Recession. Dew and Jackson ( 2018 ) found that relationship maintenance behaviors moderated the association between feelings of economic pressure and marital quality for wives. That is, husbands’ performance of relationship maintenance behaviors, such as doing small favors for their spouses, protected wives’ marital satisfaction from declining despite wives’ feelings of economic pressure.

Dew et al. ( 2018 ) modeled responses to a specific question that asked participants whether the recession had increased their marital commitment. Factors that were positively associated with both wives and husbands stating that the recession had increased their commitment including religious marital sanctification, relationship maintenance behaviors, and financial support from families and friends. Interestingly, the more economic pressure both wives and husbands felt, the more likely they were to say that the Recession increased their marital commitment.

Wheeler et al. ( 2019 ) was the final study that used the family stress model. These researchers examined an additional mediator in the model using longitudinal data. Relational aggression, such as social sabotage and love withdrawal, mediated the association between feelings of economic pressure and marital quality. Wheeler et al. found these associations happening both within and across longitudinal waves. In other words, negative affect is not the only mechanism through which feelings of economic pressure incite marital distress. Rather, worse relationship behaviors might arise because of economic pressure. These behaviors might then increase marital distress.

These four studies contribute to the family stress model by adding specificity while, paradoxically, also broadening the potential relationship processes that may occur when couples experience negative financial events. Ross et al. ( 2017 ) drew attention to a specific family context (i.e., military families). By doing so, they uncovered important sex differences as it relates to actor effects in the family stress model. Broader studies of the family stress model have not often found these differences.

The other four studies suggested additional mediators and moderators that researchers have previously not studied within the family stress model. For example, Wheeler et al. ( 2019 ) studied a very specific relationship process, i.e., relationship aggression, as a potential mediator in the family stress model, and found that it was important. Dew and Jackson ( 2018 ) and Dew et al. ( 2018 ) found additional protective factors that helped couples weather the 2007–2009 Recession with their marital quality intact.

The first study of relationship quality that did not deal with financial issues was Doran and Price ( 2014 ). These researchers used the General Social Survey (US) to study the association between pornography use and marital quality. Their data were drawn from the currently-married GSS participants to test some of the hypotheses, and both the currently-married and ever-married participants for other hypotheses. Their findings on the associations were too numerous to list specifically, but, in general, they found a negative association between pornography use and marital quality. For example, currently-married individuals were less happy in their marriages if they had watched an X-rated movie in the prior year. Further, pornography use decreased the association between the frequency of sex and overall life happiness for men.

The second study that investigated relationship quality without also including financial issues was a methodological piece. Leppel ( 2015a ) illustrated a new technique “Generalized Ordered Probit with Selectivity” (GOPS) to estimate marital happiness. GOPS is useful when a dependent variable is discrete (i.e., not continuous), ordered, and incorporates information that may also be associated with selection into or out of a specific state. Leppel made the argument that marital happiness ratings are an example of this type of dependent variable and that the GOPS is a superior estimation method relative to conventional ordered probit and generalized ordered probit without selectivity. The journal published an erratum (Leppel 2015b ), because some of the equations were misprinted in the original study.

Dew and Tulane ( 2015 ) was the third study that did not examine the association between financial issues and relationship quality. Instead, they studied how interactive media was associated with relationship quality in a national sample of married dyads. A negative linear association existed between husbands’ social networking website use and wives’ and husbands’ marital quality. Specifically, the more time husbands spent on social networking websites, the less maritally happy wives were, the more conflict both spouses reported, and the lower marital stability both spouses perceived. Time spent playing video games was only problematic when differences in time use were considered. The greater the difference between the spouses in terms of video game usage, the lower they reported their marital quality, on average.

Synthesizing these studies was difficult. However, together they do suggest that relationship quality is a multifaceted construct that also has many predictors–from media use, to governmental aid, to personal attitudes. Many of the predictors tested might seem somewhat pedestrian or prosaic. However, they are also the topics that daily concern families daily (Daly 2003 ). Further, given that the studies that tested the association between financial issues and relationship quality averaged almost one per year may suggest that this area of relationship quality research continues to possess importance.

Labor and Employment

Like family structure, labor force participation and the division of household labor have changed over the past seventy years. Married mothers participate in paid labor much more than in the past whereas men engage in household chores and childcare more. Researchers have studied how these changes have influenced family life.

Four of the studies I reviewed related to labor and employment. One of the studies examined paid labor force participation. Specifically, Quinn and Rubb ( 2011 ) researched the bidirectional association between being overeducated (i.e., having more education than one’s employment merits), labor force participation, and moving house. Both wives’ and husbands’ overeducation was associated with the likelihood of moving. Interestingly, moving, in turn, was associated with an increased likelihood of wives leaving the paid labor force, but was associated with a decreased likelihood of a husband being overeducated.

The other three studies researched the association between household division of labor and relationship happiness. Oshio et al. ( 2013 ) studied this association in China, Japan, and Korea. They found no aspect in common across the three countries except that good health was positively associated with marital satisfaction. In China, dual-earning couples were happier. In Korea, the more housework wives or husbands had to do, the less happy they were in their relationship. Finally, income positively predicted marital satisfaction in Japan and Korea.

Britt and Roy ( 2014 ) used the NLSY 1986 cohort to assess the relationship between the household division of labor and marital happiness. They found that perceived unfairness in the housework division was negatively associated with having high levels of marital satisfaction for wives, but not husbands. Arguments about money and affection were negatively associated with marital quality for both wives and husbands.

The final paper on division of labor and relationship quality was a theoretical and econometric piece. Skåtun ( 2017 ), outlined two types of marital bargaining. Coasean bargaining behavior within marriage occurs if all marital/family goods (whether tangible or intangible) were shared between spouses and they could transfer utility to each other without cost. Non-Coasean bargaining behavior within marriage would occur if the marital/family goods were not all shared. Skåtun asserted that the question of which of these two forms marital bargaining takes is unsettled in the literature, and that paid labor force participation behavior following divorce might help answer it.

Not many studies were in this category. It may be that scholars viewed other types of journals, such as economics journals and gender studies journals, as outlets more likely to publish their studies. It may also be because another review covered employment and wages. Labor and employment studies will continue to be important, however, as macroeconomic conditions continue to change.

Family Money Management

The actual behavior that families use to manage their financial resources is an important topic because managing these resources is associated with families being able to meet their goals (National Council on Family Relations 2014 ). Further, financial products, instruments, and regulations have grown increasingly complex over time. This trend toward more financial complexity may influence how individuals and families manage their money.

Four studies examined family money management. The first study used qualitative methodology to discover how stable, happy couples engaged in money management (Skogrand et al. 2011 ). A phenomenological analysis revealed that couples typically had one spouse managing the day-to-day aspect of their finances, that they exercised financial trust and communication, that they had little-to-no debt, and that they stayed within their financial means.

Evertsson and Nyman ( 2014 ) also used qualitative methods to examine family money management. They scrutinized how cohabiting and living-apart-together couples who claimed they manage their money independently actually manage their money. Evertsson and Nyman found that many couples had systems in place to handle joint expenses. However, sometimes the joint expenses made the distinctions between “my,” “your,” and “our” money less clear. Furthermore, these couples would sometimes intentionally engage in joint consumption as a symbol of their union. In addition to the strong qualitative analysis, this study was unique in that it included many same-sex couples.

Cantillon et al. ( 2016 ) researched predictors of individual deprivation (e.g., doing without a substantial meal in the past two weeks, feeling unable to spend money on oneself) vis-à-vis family money management. They found that having children in the household was associated with being in the “female-only” deprivation group, while female-only employment/income was associated with being in the “male-only” deprivation group. Many family characteristics were associated with being in the “both deprived” group, including income (negative), full income pooling (positive), and children in the home (positive).

Finally, Addo ( 2017 ) examined an old family money management question using a newer population. Family scholars have examined how married couples divided the money that came into their households (e.g., Pahl 1995 ). But Addo studied the bidirectional association between the ways in which cohabiting couples integrated their finances and their plans for marriage. Those cohabiting couples with definite plans to marry were much more likely to have joint bank accounts, credit card accounts, and mortgages. Further, the more joint practices cohabiting couples engaged in, the more likely they would marry.

Other Topics

Three studies did not fit any categorization. Hall and Willoughby ( 2016 ) examined the importance that emerging adults felt for different roles (e.g., career, parenthood). The found that these attitudes were linked to both future expectations and behaviors. For example, those in the child/marriage centered group and marriage centered group had less sexual experience than young adults in other groups.

Jang and Danes ( 2016 ) studied the quantity of social capital to which intermarried couples had access. Social capital are resources, whether tangible or intangible, that individuals and couples can access based on their social networks. A methodological strength of this study was that the authors examined race, ethnicity, and national origin rather than just looking at one source of heterogeneity. Jang and Danes found that interracially married couples reported less access to social capital; this was not the case for interethnic or international couples.

Högnäs and Williams ( 2017 ) assessed fatherhood identity among non-resident low-income men. A negative association existed between their partners’ extended family involvement and the strength of men’s fatherhood identity. That is, the more the women’s extended family was involved in the raising and care of the child, the less the men reported feeling like fathers.

Finally, Shamblen et al. ( 2018 ) evaluated a program meant to strengthen marriage and family life. They found the program had modest effects for the participants in some life domains, but no effects in other domains. They also estimated the return on investment (ROI) by comparing the cost of implementing their curricula and counseling regime with the benefits. Under most considerations, the ROI for the program was positive.

Future Directions

One of the ways researchers might grow the boundaries of this field is in continuing to apply important research questions we have already investigated to new relationship structures (i.e., beyond cohabitation). That is, by the editor’s assignment, my review covered marriage and cohabitation research that appeared in the journal over the past ten years. All 36 papers were strong representations of marriage and cohabitation research – at least for heterosexual individuals. Gay and lesbian couples were not well represented in the literature I reviewed. Only one study, Evertsson and Nyman ( 2014 ), had a sample where at least 50% of the participants were in same sex relationships. Of course, part of the reasons for this lack of research arises from the fact that same sex marriage was only legal in seven countries prior to 2010, Footnote 3 the beginning of my review period. As of April 2020, 29 countries have legalized same sex marriages. Because many more countries legally recognize same sex cohabitations and marriages now than in the past, it would be important to study these relationships–particularly regarding financial issues.

Furthermore, it is the case that over the past 10 years, other types of adult romantic relationships besides marriage and cohabitation have emerged and are slowly gaining cultural mainstream acceptance. For example, consensual non-monogamy (i.e., a romantic and/or sexual relationship with more than one partner in which all partners consent to the relationship), has become as a topic of mainstream conversation.

Inviting individuals and couples in these newer family forms to participate in research and studying them, generally, may be difficult. Participants may be hard to find simply because there are not many in the population. For example, a recent national study revealed that only 12% of adults in the US reported ever having been in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, and only 3% currently reside in such a relationship (Hawkins and Smith 2019 ). Furthermore, studying heterosexual marriage, researchers could take the number of spouses, gender configurations, and legal issues within the marriage for granted. This is simply no longer the case. Having so much variance in family structure and smaller groups of newer family forms certainly complicates statistical models.

In addition to studying underrepresented forms of adult romantic relationships, researchers who study marriage, cohabitation, and financial issues would serve the field and the public well by specifically studying groups that research has historically underrepresented. This includes studying different race and ethnic groups, and low-income families (beyond traditional “poverty outcomes” research). This also includes conducting more research with samples drawn from outside the United States.

The suggestion to focus on underrepresented populations may be even more important given the financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020. For example, Dew and Jackson (2019) found relationship attitudes and processes that helped protect couples’ relationship quality during the 2007–2009 Recession using a national sample. However, it is unknown whether these findings apply to underrepresented families during the current macro-financial problems because Dew and Jackson did not run any interactions by race or income.

Expanding Studies on Financial and Relational Process

Another way to grow this field is to more closely examine the process of how financial issues and relationship quality interrelate. In other words, while many studies have shown that financial issues and relationship outcomes relate, not as many have investigated how and why that is the case. Our understanding of marriage, cohabitation, and other romantic relationship forms would expand if we understood the role of money within them.

Indeed, many of the studies I reviewed regarding relationship quality uncovered links between financial issues and relationship quality. For example, LeBaron et al. ( 2018 ) tested whether attitudes about marriage mediated the negative association between materialism and marital quality. Further, Wheeler et al. ( 2019 ) tested some intriguing potential mediators (e.g., love withdrawal) of the association between economic pressure and marital quality within the family stress model.

A number of new directions might help this area of study flourish. First, studies of the interface between financial issues and relationship quality would benefit by greater efforts in theory construction. The family stress model is an undeniably excellent model that has generated much research. However, studies in this area cannot grow without moving beyond the family stress model. The association between financial issues and relationship quality encompasses more than negative financial events and feelings of economic pressure.

Second, nearly all the studies in this area have the causal direction running from financial issues to relationship quality. But a few economic studies suggest that the opposite direction of causality is possible, even likely. That is, it may be that a strong marital or cohabiting relationship makes sound financial management behaviors more likely. Individuals with a strong relationship are more likely to invest in it (Becker 1981 ) – including by investing in their joint financial futures. Studies have shown that couples spend down wealth or hold less of it as they approach divorce relative to couples who are stable (Finke and Pierce 2006 ; Zagorsky 2005 ). Consequently, a relatively untapped area of research is to make great use of causal and longitudinal data to detangle issues of causal direction in the association between financial issues and relationship quality.

The last aspect of process that I recommend for future study is to understand the attitudinal, relational, and behavioral aspects that protect romantic couples during financial difficulties. Almost all couples will experience negative financial events and/or feelings of economic pressure. Knowing what individual partners, spouses, and couples can do to maintain their relationships would benefit researchers, practitioners, and lay families. Some of the studies I reviewed did exactly that (e.g., Dew and Jackson 2018 ). However, much work remains to be done in this area.

More Applied/Translational Research

Related to my last point, a final call for future marriage and cohabitation research is to generate more applied and translational research. Only one of the studies I reviewed went beyond basic research (Shamblen et al. 2018 ). Interestingly, many of the studies that I reviewed covered prosaic, that is every day or mundane, issues with which couples regularly struggle. I believe that is one of the strengths of the Journal of Family and Economic Issues . It might not be difficult to take some of the issues covered in this review – the division of household labor, money management, etc. – and begin working on applied and translational research. Although the Journal of Family and Economic Issues is not a practice journal, applied and translational research would make the journal more widely relevant.

One of the studies reviewed (Jamison 2018 ), showed that cohabitation is a fluid status and may not necessarily involve the couple living together in the same household all the time.

It may seem odd to define samples from outside the United States as “underrepresented.” However, of the 36 articles I reviewed, only 4 – just slightly over 10% – used data from participants who did not live in the United States.

In the United States, same sex marriage was not legal in all states until June 2015.

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Jeffrey Dew is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. The Wheatley Institution did not directly contribute any funding toward this manuscript.

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Dew, J. Ten Years of Marriage and Cohabitation Research in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. J Fam Econ Iss 42 (Suppl 1), 52–61 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-020-09723-7

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Cohabitation, Relationship Stability, Relationship Adjustment, and Children’s Mental Health Over 10 Years

Heather m. foran.

1 Department of Health Psychology, University of Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Austria

Janina Mueller

Wolfgang schulz.

2 Department of Clinical Psychology, Psychotherapy, and Assessment, Technical University of Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Germany

Kurt Hahlweg

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The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, upon request and in compliance with data management procedures for this project.

Understanding risk factors for relationship dissolution and poor relationship adjustment among couples has been an active area of research in relationship science. One risk factor, non-marital cohabitation, has shown to predict higher rates of relationship dissolution and relationship instability in some samples, but the associations among German parents with children over time are less clear. In this study, we examined the links between non-marital cohabitation and 10-year outcomes (relationship dissolution, relationship adjustment over time, and child internalizing and externalizing symptoms) in 220 German families with preschool-aged children at the initial assessment followed into adolescence. Families were assessed 7 times over the 10 years and retention at the 10-year follow-up was over 92%. After accounting for multiple testing, only mother’s report of better initial interparental communication predicted whether parents were likely to stay together over the course of the 10 years. Adolescents of parents who cohabited were at higher risk for externalizing symptoms 10 years later compared to children of married parents. In addition, although there were no differences between cohabiting couples and married couples at the initial assessment in relationship adjustment, cohabiting mothers who stayed with their partner over the 10 years showed significantly greater declines in relationship adjustment over the 10 years compared to married mothers. Findings indicate the need for further research that explores family structure and dynamics over time to inform refinement of prevention programs targeting relationships and children’s mental health.


In recent years, cohabitation without marriage has become a more socially accepted family structure in many westernized countries ( Cunningham and Thornton, 2005 ; Sassler and Lichter, 2020 ). Approximately 50% of women reported cohabiting with a partner as a first union, with 40% of these transitioning to marriage within 3 years, 27% ending the relationship, and 32% remaining in a cohabiting relationship ( Copen et al., 2013 ). Likewise, there has been an increase in the number of families with children who are cohabiting in many countries over the last half century ( Bumpass and Lu, 2000 ; Kreider, 2005 ; Kennedy and Bumpass, 2008 ). Approximately half of children under 16 in the United States are estimated to live with a mother in a cohabiting relationship at some point during their childhood ( Kennedy and Bumpass, 2008 ).

Similar to the United States, Germany has also experienced increasing rates of cohabitation and non-marital births ( Perelli-Harris et al., 2018 ). According to the most recent statistics, the number of cohabiting couples in Germany has almost doubled to 843,000 since 1996 ( BMFSFJ, 2017 ). The non-marital birth rate has also risen significantly. In 2015, 35% of all new-born children were born to parents who were not married, compared to 10% in 1950 ( BMFSFJ, 2017 ). Of relevance, German social policies and taxation law continue to favor marriage over cohabitation and provides incentives for marital childbearing (e.g., financial advantages, tax splitting, spouse insurance, parental rights in the case of joint legal custody) ( Schnor, 2014 ; Perelli-Harris et al., 2018 ).

The choice to cohabitate rather than marry may reflect views about the institution of marriage and its importance, economic reasons, or other selection differences between those who choose to cohabitate or marry ( Kline et al., 2004 ; Stanley et al., 2004 , 2006 ). Past research with samples from the United States has found that cohabiting couples often differ from married couples. Couples who cohabit rather than marry have lower education ( McGinnis, 2003 ), are more equalitarian in gender roles ( Le Bourdais and Lapierre-Adamcyk, 2004 ), and come from more unstable family backgrounds ( Kamp Dush et al., 2003 ). In some countries, economic barriers to marriage may be more pronounced among couples with children who cohabit ( Lichter, 2012 ).

Findings regarding the differences between non-marital cohabitating and married couples in relation to child and relationship outcomes has been mixed ( Amato, 2015 ; Sassler and Lichter, 2020 ). Cohabitating relationships are less stable than married relationships in many countries (Italy, Great Britian, and Scandinavia: Thomson et al., 2019 ; Germany: Bastin et al., 2012 ; Sweden: Kennedy and Thomson, 2010 ; United States: Kennedy and Bumpass, 2008 ; Australia: Wilkins et al., 2010 ). In some studies, cohabitating couples are also at risk for lower commitment to the relationship ( Stanley et al., 2004 ) and more depressive symptoms ( Stafford et al., 2004 ; Kamp Dush, 2013 ). However, accounting for demographic and other contextual factors, differences may not hold and not all studies find significant differences ( Amato, 2015 ; Sassler and Lichter, 2020 ).

Given the mixed findings in the literature, it is important to better understand whether cohabitation also predicts relationship dissolution and dissatisfaction among couples with children and to examine whether this is linked with the mental health of children. There is limited long-term research on this topic with samples of German parents but results of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies in the United States support non-marital cohabitation among parents as a risk factor for some poor outcomes among children (e.g., Brown, 2004 ; Artis, 2007 ). In one Norwegian study of women followed over the transition to parenthood, women who cohabited reported less relationship satisfaction over the 18-month follow-up period compared to married women ( Mortensen et al., 2012 ). In a study of the United Kingdom Millennium Cohort, the risk for separation before the child’s fifth birthday was 26% for cohabiting parents compared to 9% for married parents ( Callan et al., 2006 ). Further, cohabitation (as well as single status) is associated with increased risk of poor birth health outcomes compared to children of married mothers ( Shah et al., 2011 ). Thus, non-marital cohabitation was linked to an increase in family instability and also to negative implications for children’s health outcomes ( Amato, 2001 ; Osborne and McLanahan, 2007 ; Kalil et al., 2011 ; Kim, 2011 ). Recent research also found that children born to or raised by cohabiting parents are more likely to exhibit internalizing and externalizing problems, show more aggressive behaviors, and experience more difficulties with social relationships than do children born to married parents ( Amato, 2001 ; Brown, 2004 ; Fomby and Osborne, 2010 ; Goldberg and Carlson, 2014 ).

One explanation for these findings may not be relationship status but rather due to the quality of the interparental relationship. Children are particularly at risk when parents’ relationships are conflictual and discordant ( Amato et al., 1995 ; Rhoades, 2008 ). Higher parental conflict is associated with higher behavioral problems and maladjustment among children ( Amato, 2001 ; Osborne and McLanahan, 2007 ; Kalil et al., 2011 ; Kim, 2011 ; Goldberg and Carlson, 2014 ; Davies et al., 2016 ). Further, longitudinal data suggest that interparental conflict is associated with decreases in positive parenting and children’s emotional security, which in turn predicts the development of externalizing and internalizing behavior problems in children ( Schacht et al., 2009 ).

Another explanation for cohabitation being linked with children’s health and parent’s relationship outcomes may be through societal mechanisms. In most European countries non-marital cohabitation has developed into a socially accepted alternative for individuals in close relationships. Compared to the United States, where non-marital cohabitation is often viewed as a stepping stone to marriage ( Sassler and Lichter, 2020 ), cohabitation has become a common form of partnership in Germany, especially for younger birth cohorts ( Nazio and Blossfeld, 2003 ). In fact, data from the German youngest birth cohorts suggested that about 40% of women in Eastern Germany and about 50% in Western Germany have adopted cohabitation before eventually entering into first marriage ( Nazio and Blossfeld, 2003 ). Further, studies found that German couples have even more positive views of living in a cohabitation relationship without marriage intentions than couples in Great Britain and Australia ( Treas et al., 2014 ; Perelli-Harris et al., 2019 ). This suggests that despite German family policy benefits to marriage, cohabitation may be more tolerated in the German society and less stigmatized ( Perelli-Harris et al., 2019 ). As social stigma or social norms against premarital cohabitation has worn off in Germany, one might expect the effect on child mental health and relationship outcomes through social stigma or social norms may be less applicable in comparison to other countries in which non-marital family structures are more stigmatized.

In the present study, we examine whether parents with preschool-aged children (ages 2.5–6 years old) who cohabit or are married are at differential risk for relationship dissolution over the span of 10 years using a prospective sample of German families. As most of the research has been conducted on United States samples rather than international samples, the focus on German parents fills a gap in the literature ( Jose et al., 2010 ). German parents are particularly interesting because, in Germany, there is relatively low levels of social disapproval against non-marital cohabitation compared to other countries ( Lappegård et al., 2014 ). There is also little research that has examined these associations past early childhood into adolescence ( Bulanda and Manning, 2008 ). It is unclear whether parental non-marital cohabitation will relate to adolescent mental health, but it possible that as adolescents start to form their own dating relationships associations with their parent’s relationship history may be significant.

In particular, we were interested in addressing three research questions. First, we were interested in determining whether initial relationship status (non-marital cohabitation vs. marriage) predicted whether couples separated over a 10 year follow-up period (R1) . Parents who cohabit or are married may differ on other variables (e.g., sociodemographic factors or initial relationship quality, initial relationship communication), which may account for any differences in dissolution rates observed. To consider this possibility, we were interested in testing whether differences in rates of relationship dissolution were retained after accounting for any other identifiable differences between cohabiting parents and married parents at the initial assessment.

Second, we were interested in whether cohabiting or married parents who remained together over the 10-year period differed in how satisfied they were over time (R2) . We hypothesized that cohabitation at the initial assessment would predict steeper declines in relationship adjustment over the 10 year period based on findings from other studies followed over shorter periods of time (e.g., Mortensen et al., 2012 ).

Our third research question was to test whether parental intimate relationship variables predicted the presence of significant externalizing and internalizing symptoms among the children, now adolescents, at the 10-year follow-up after controlling for initial symptoms during preschool ages (R3) . We examined whether initial relationship adjustment, initial relationship communication, initial relationship status, and relationship dissolution over time predicted adolescent externalizing and internalizing symptoms as reported by mothers on the widely used Child Behavioral Checklist ( Achenbach and Rescorla, 2000 ).

Materials and Methods

Participants and procedure.

Participants were recruited from preschools in Braunschweig, Germany (see Heinrichs et al., 2005 for more details on the recruitment process) to participate in a randomized controlled trial of a universal primary parenting prevention program (i.e., the Triple-P positive parenting program; Sanders, 1999 ). Briefly, 17 preschools were selected in order to yield a sample representative of a range of social-economic status using the social index of their catchment area via the objective Kita Social Index. Parents, fluent in German, were eligible to participate if they had a child 2 1/2–6 years old attending preschool. Preschools were used for recruitment of a representative sample since most children in Germany attend preschool (“Kindergarten”) due to their widespread availability and low cost. The population response rate was 31% ( N = 280) of those invited to participate ( Heinrichs et al., 2005 ), similar to other international prevention trials ( Sanders, 1999 ). Only parents who were cohabiting or married at pre-assessment were eligible for the current study ( N = 220).

Participants were assessed 7 times over the course of the 10-year study (baseline, approximately 6 months following the initial assessment, 4 additional times every 12 months after the pre-assessment, and 10 years later). Participant retention was excellent across the 10 years; 92.3% of families provided data over the 10 year time period ( n = 203 of the initial 220 cohabiting or married parents). Participants were given 50 Euros for participating in the first assessment. They were provided 20 Euros for all subsequent assessments. This study was approved by the university IRB board and informed consent was provided.

The mean age of the sample was 38.8 (6.0) years old for men and 35.6 (4.5) years old for women at baseline. The target child was 4.0 years old on average at baseline ( SD = 0.97). The majority of the sample reported having an income in the middle range (55%, 1,500–3,000 Euros per month after taxes); 37% reported income greater than 3,000 Euros per month; 5% of the sample reported income of less than 1,500 Euros per month and 3% did not report income information. Eighty-eight percent of men and 9% of women reported working full-time; 2% of men and 47% of women reported working part-time; and 44% of women and 9% of men were unemployed.

In Germany, there are three levels of secondary education (high, middle, and low). Over half of men and women (63 and 58%, respectively) had completed the high level (typically indicative of individuals who attend college); 22% of men and 34% of women completed the middle level (typically indicative of individuals who obtain some specialized training other than a bachelor’s degree) and 16% of men and 7% of women reported the low level (typically indicative of individuals who do not complete high school). Regarding post-secondary education, half of the men (53%) and 37% of women had completed some type of university degree; 12% of men and 27% of women had completed a specialized training or community college degree and 36% of men and women had completed an apprenticeship or had no post-secondary education. The number of children living in the household was 2.1 ( SD = 0.84) on average.

Relationship/Marital Status

Parents’ initial relationship status was measured at baseline assessment among both members of the couple with a categorical variable (married vs. cohabitating, with the higher value indicating cohabitation).

Relationship Stability (Staying Together)

Separation was assessed at the 10-year follow-up with categorical value the categories of “partnered” and “divorced or separated at any time” in the 10-year period; the higher value indicated staying with the same partner over the 10-year period.

Relationship Adjustment

The 7 item Abbreviated Dyadic Adjustment Scale (ADAS; Sharpley and Rogers, 1984 ; Köppe, 2001 ) was used to assess relationship satisfaction (e.g., “How often do you and your partner have a stimulating exchange of ideas.”) over the course of the 10 years (7 time points). Items are scored on a Likert scale from 0 to 5, with higher scores indicating more relationship satisfaction (mothers at baseline α = 0.81, fathers at baseline α = 0.82).

Couple Problem-Solving Communication

Couple communication over the 10 years was assessed with the 7 item communication scale ( Christensen and Sullaway, 1984 ; Kröger et al., 2000 ) rated on a 9 point scale ranging from 1 to 9. Participants were required to indicate the likelihood to which both partners contribute to a discussion and try to solve problems when an issue or problem arises (e.g., “both spouses express feelings to each other,”; “both spouses blame, accuse, or criticize each other”). Internal consistency with this measure was high across both genders (mothers at baseline α = 0.89, fathers at baseline α = 0.88). This measure assesses interparental communication, including conflictual communication and was assessed at baseline in the current paper.

Child Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms

The commonly used Child Behavior Checklist was used to assess mother-reported child internalizing and externalizing symptoms at the initial assessment and at the 10-year follow-up ( Achenbach and Rescorla, 2000 ). This widely used measure asks parents to report the presence and frequency of child behavioral problems (e.g., hits others) and emotional problems (e.g., rapid changes between sadness and excitement) using a three step format (0 = not true; 1 = somewhat or sometimes true; 2 = very true or often true). The internal consistencies are high in this sample (internalizing symptoms at baseline α = 0.87, externalizing symptoms at baseline α = 0.90). The age-appropriate German versions of the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL 1 1/2–5 and CBCL 4–18) for children aged 1 1/2–5 years and 4–18 years were used at pre-assessment and the CBCL 4–18 was used at the 10-year follow-up. Since the two age-dependent versions cannot be directly compared, scores were converted to Z scores at the pre-assessment (in accordance with the recommendation from the author; T. Achenbach, personal communication, March 2008) and analyzed as a continuous variable due to the version differences. Ten year outcomes were the presence of internalizing symptoms and externalizing symptoms at or above the borderline to clinically significant cut-offs. Approximately 20% of children had externalizing problems and 23% had internalizing symptoms at the 10-year follow-up.

Analytical Strategy

For all analyses, models were run using full information maximum likelihood estimation with robust statistics in Mplus ( Muthén and Muthén, 2012 ). Prior to testing the first research question ( R1 ), we examined any baseline differences between cohabitors and married parents using t -tests or chi-square tests, where appropriate. Any significant differences were included as covariates in the models predicting whether couples stayed together at the 10-year follow-up. The covariate examined included whether they participated in the Triple P parenting program, whether they participated in the 10-year follow-up or dropped out, child age, parental age, child gender, number of siblings, child behavioral or emotional problems, parenting skills, couple communication, relationship adjustment, parental depressive symptoms, parental anxious symptoms, parental secondary education, post-secondary education, family income and stress levels. Two regression models were tested for mothers and fathers. The first model included initial relationship status and relationship communication at the pre-assessment, and controlled for any pre-assessment differences between cohabiting and married parents. The second model included relationship satisfaction instead of communication due to their shared variance (i.e., collinearity).

For the second research question ( R2 ), we sought to examine whether relationship status predicted relationship adjustment over time among parents who stayed together. We used latent growth curve analyses to examine the trajectories of relationship adjustment over the 10-year period. Models were run separately for men and women to examine the impact of relationship status on the relationship adjustment of each gender (rather than the couple) and due to the smaller sample size for fathers. Specifically, we examined whether the latent slope of relationship adjustment over the 10 years was predicted by relationship status at pre-assessment.

In the last set of analyses for research question three ( R3 ), we conducted regression analyses in a structural equation modeling framework with MPlus statistical software to test whether relationship status at the initial assessment, relationship stability over the course of the 10 years, and initial relationship adjustment predicted the presence of mother reported children’s internalizing and externalizing symptoms at the 10-year follow-up. A variety of the initial assessment variables were included in the model as controls including demographic variables, treatment condition, and mental health symptoms of children. None of the covariates besides baseline mental health symptoms of the children were significant, so only this variable was retained in the models. Analyses were run a second time included relationship communication at the initial assessment as a predictor rather than relationship adjustment at the initial assessment.

Relationship Status and Separation Over Time (R1)

Descriptive statistics and correlations for study variables are provided in Supplementary Material for fathers and mothers. Fifty percent of cohabiting parents and 17.1% of married couples at baseline separated over the 10 year period based on analyses with participants who reported data at the 10 year follow-up ( n = 203). Rates were similar when the full sample was analyzed regardless of dropout time point (52.2% of cohabitating parents vs. 15.7% of married parents, based on sample N = 220) or when only parents who provided data at least through the 4 year follow-up were analyzed (52.2% of cohabitating parents vs. 16.2% of married parents, based on sample n = 214).

To consider that pre-assessment differences between cohabiting and married parents may explain a difference in rates of separation, we compared cohabiting and married parents at pre-assessment on study variables with independent t -tests or chi-square tests. There were no significant differences at pre-assessment between cohabiting parents and married parents on whether they participated in the Triple P parenting program, whether they participated in the 10 year follow-up or dropped out, child age, child gender, number of siblings, child behavioral or emotional problems, parenting skills, couple communication, relationship adjustment, parental depressive symptoms, parental anxious symptoms, parental secondary education, mother’s post-secondary education, or mother’s reported stress levels ( p s > 0.05). There were, however, significant differences at pre-assessment based on a few sociodemographic variables such that cohabiting parents were younger (mothers t = 3.61, p = 0.000, fathers t = 3.04, p = 0.003) and reported less monthly family income than married parents ( t = 4.69, p = 0.000). In addition, cohabiting fathers reported more stress ( t = –2.49, p = 0.014) and less post-secondary education than married fathers (fathers χ 2 = 8.05, p = 0.018).

Results for RQ1 are shown in Table 1 . Models for mothers included the covariates age and family income. Due to the covariance between relationship adjustment and communication ( r = 0.71), models were estimated with each of these variables separately. Results in Table 1 show that relationship communication at pre-assessment significantly predicted relationship stability at 10 years after accounting for all significant pre-differences. For men, there were more covariates included in the model since more differences based on relationship status were observed at baseline. Income, not shown, was also tested and did not significantly predict relationship status in any of the models. This variable was removed since it reduced the sample size due to some missing data on income at baseline, which reduces sample size even when using procedures such as full information maximum likelihood to account for missingness. There were no significant predictors in the men’s models after accounting for multiple testing with a Bonferroni correction.

Baseline predictors of relationship stability (staying together) over the 10 years.

n = 194–201 mothers; n = 186 fathers. Father models: Income and education were correlated (r = 0.49). The sample size was reduced when income was included (n = 179). Income was not a significant predictor in any of the models so results are also presented with it excluded. Cohabitation = A negative coefficient indicates that those who cohabit are less likely to stay together. Bonferroni correction applied, *p < 0.013.

Relationship Status and Relationship Adjustment Over Time in Long-Term Relationships (R2)

To further examine the course of relationship adjustment over time for cohabiting couples and married couples, the means and standard deviations of relationship adjustment over time for couples who stayed together and were married or cohabitating are presented in Table 2 ( n = 161) for each year time point. Using latent growth curve analyses, latent slope of relationship adjustment over the 10-year follow-up was predicted from relationship status (cohabiting or married at pre-assessment). When including covariates as described above and listed in Table 1 (e.g., age and income for women), the pattern of results did not change. The model was estimated with maximum likelihood estimation with robust statistics to account for non-normality in the data using Mplus 7.1 statistical software ( Muthén and Muthén, 2012 ). The growth curve slope for relationship adjustment was modeled based on time of the assessment (0, 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 10). The linear model was a good fit to the data for mothers (χ 2 = 67.95, df = 33, CFI = 0.95, TLI = 0.95) and fathers (χ 2 = 43.44, df = 33, CFI = 0.98, TLI = 0.98). Relationship status predicted a declining slope for relationship adjustment over the 10-year follow-up for mothers ( b = –0.35, SE = 0.17, Z = –2.10, p = 0.036), but not for fathers ( b = 0.12, SE = 0.14, Z = –0.89, p = 0.375). Thus, cohabiting mothers exhibited a 0.35 point greater decrease (or smaller increase) in relationship adjustment per year than did married mothers. To further explore these trends, we examined mean differences in relationship adjustment over time. There was no significant difference in mean relationship adjustment among cohabiting and married parents at earlier time points, but at the 10-year time point, cohabiting mothers who had remained with their partners, reported lower levels of relationship adjustment than married mothers who remained in their relationships ( p = 0.011).

Relationship adjustment of those couples who stayed together over the 10 Years.

n = 161 intact relationships over 10 years.

Baseline Relationship Variables, Relationship Stability and Children’s Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms at the 10-Year Follow-Up (R3)

Lastly, we examined whether relationship variables significantly predicted mothers’ report of children’s externalizing and internalizing symptoms at the 10-year follow-up. Mothers’ report was used for these analyses due to the higher retention among mothers compared to fathers. Results are shown in Table 3 . Cohabitation at pre-assessment significantly predicted more externalizing symptoms of children at the 10-year follow-up; externalizing symptoms of children at pre-assessment was also a significant predictor of 10-year outcome. For internalizing behaviors at 10-year follow-up, only pre-assessment internalizing behaviors significantly predicted 10-year report of internalizing behaviors.

Predictors of adolescent internalizing and externalizing symptoms at the 10-year follow-up.

When the covariates age, income, and treatment status were included, none of the results changed. All independent variables indicate baseline levels except staying together which reflects whether the couple stayed together (vs. separated/divorced) over the 10 year period. Bonferroni correction applied, *p < 0.013.

Analyses were run a second time with relationship communication at the pre-assessment as an independent variable in the models (see Table 3 ) rather than relationship adjustment. Relationship communication at pre-assessment was not a significant predictor of children’s externalizing or internalizing symptoms at the 10-year follow-up ( p s > 0.05).

Several interesting and important findings emerged from the current study of families. Using a prospective sample followed over 10 years with over 92% retention at the 10-year follow-up among mothers, we examined the impacts of initial relationship variables on parental relationship outcomes and child mental health symptoms 10 years later. Results showed that cohabiting non-married parents were almost three times more likely than married parents to end their relationship over the course of the 10-year period (50 vs. 17%). However, after accounting for covariates and multiple testing, this difference in risk for dissolution was no longer statistically significant. The only significant predictor of relationship dissolution was interparental relationship communication at baseline reported by mothers. Although, among the cohabiting parents who stayed together over the 10 year period, cohabitation (compared to marriage) predicted significant declines in mother’s relationship adjustment over time.

Further, cohabitation also was associated with children’s externalizing symptoms. Children whose parents were cohabiting at the initial assessment were more likely to experience higher levels of externalizing symptoms 10 years later even after controlling for initial symptoms. We did not, however, find an association of cohabitation and children’s internalizing symptoms. These findings are consistent with existing research which have shown that parents’ relationship quality and children’s externalizing problems are reciprocally related, but not children’s internalizing problems ( Fomby and Cherlin, 2007 ; Osborne and McLanahan, 2007 ; Fomby and Estacion, 2011 ; Goldberg and Carlson, 2014 ). It is not surprising that cohabitation associations were observed only for children’s externalizing problems and may be related to measurement issues. Adolescents’ report of their own internalizing symptoms may be more reliable than their mothers’ report since they may not disclose their own emotional symptoms to their mother ( Goldberg and Carlson, 2014 ).

The emotional security theory ( Davies and Cummings, 1994 ) may advance an understanding of how non-marital cohabitation relates with children’s externalizing symptoms. In the emotional security theory, interparental conflict has been shown to play a key role in risk for children’s poor adjustment ( Cummings et al., 2006 ). Our findings indicate that parents’ initial relationship status is related to children’s externalizing symptoms, regardless of parents’ initial relationship adjustment, relationship communication, and relationship dissolution over time. Theoretically, cohabitation may increase feelings of emotional insecurity in the parental relationship regardless of parents’ initial relationship adjustment and relationship communication or it may be that destructive communication moderates or mediates the association with child maladjustment. Thus, it could be that the risk for externalizing symptoms based on early cohabitation status of parents may be accounted for interparental conflict more specifically. These possibilities could be explored in future studies.

Taken together, these findings partially support the importance of cohabitation for understanding the longitudinal parental relationship and child behavior outcomes. It is also interesting to note that other relationship variables, such as initial relationship adjustment and relationship communication, did not predict outcomes at 10 years for children. Thus, the results indicate that cohabitation may be a useful factor that identifies parents in need of relationship education programs, even when their initial relationship adjustment does not indicate a risk. Relationship education programs have been shown to be effective in many countries including Germany ( Hawkins et al., 2008 ; Hahlweg and Richter, 2010 ).

These results should not be interpreted to imply that cohabiting relationships confer no benefits. Compared to single individuals and dating relationships both cohabitation and marriage show benefits for mental health ( Osborne and McLanahan, 2007 ; Rhoades et al., 2009 ; Amato, 2015 ). In a representative United States sample, entering a cohabiting relationship or a marital relationship was followed by improvements in mental health (e.g., lower suicide risk and depressive symptoms) among individuals followed through their twenties. Nonetheless, there appears to be some features of cohabitation without marriage that place parents at higher risk for dissatisfaction over time. In our study, this was demonstrated among parents with children from preschool age to adolescence. A next step would be to examine these patterns among older adolescents entering new dating relationships to see whether findings can be replicated and expanded on with more rigorous assessments of family dynamics and structure over time.

Although this study identifies cohabitation as a significant predictor of relationship and child outcomes, it does not address the reason for the associations with cohabitation. One perspective is that those who cohabit are different from those who marry and this explains these differences in outcomes (called the social selection perspective, James and Beattie, 2012 ). A second perspective is that there is something intrinsic to the cohabitation experience over time that explains differences in outcomes. Previous studies have found support for the second perspective in such that initial differences do not account for cohabitation and its association with relationship stability and quality ( Kamp Dush et al., 2003 ; James and Beattie, 2012 ).

Previous research also indicates that the association between cohabitation and marital dissolution particularly affects those who cohabited before engagement but not after engagement or not at all until marriage ( Rhoades et al., 2009 ). Recent research also found that in the first year of marriages, couples who had cohabited before marriage had lower rates of marital dissolution compared to couples who did not cohabit before marriage. This finding on marital stability disappeared over time; meaning that premarital cohabitation may have short-term benefits for couples, but long-term costs for marital stability still remain ( Rosenfeld and Roesler, 2019 ). Further studies should take these findings into account, as well as assess serial relationships, when evaluating the association between cohabitation, children’s mental health and parents’ relationship outcomes.

Strengths and Limitations

There are several strengths of this study worthy of mention. In particular, the use of the prospective design across such a long time period of 10 years and the excellent retention across time adds to the confidence in the study results. Further, as far as we are aware, this is one of the only studies that has examined the effects of cohabitation among German parents followed over such a long time period. Other strengths include the use of statistical controls for other confounding effects and the examination of trajectories of relationship adjustment over time with latent growth curve modeling.

Moreover, as noted in the meta-analysis of cohabitation by Jose et al. (2010) , there has been a relative dearth of studies with international samples. In Germany, cohabitation and raising children is more culturally accepted than it is in the United States, and accordingly, there is less stigma associated with such arrangements and less pressure to marriage. Although subcultural differences exist within German families in which pressure to marry may vary and cohabitation may be more or less accepted, by conducting this study in a country in which overall tolerance of non-marital family structures is more accepted, the results support the theory that the cohabitation findings are not fully explained by societal pressure. In a large study of Norwegian mothers followed from pregnancy for 18 months, cohabitation was also a predictor of lower relationship adjustment and this remained constant over time ( Mortensen et al., 2012 ). Thus, in countries in which social disapproval of cohabitation is relatively low ( Lappegård et al., 2014 ), the link between marital status and relationship stability among parents still emerge (see also Rosenfeld and Roesler, 2019 ). Other studies have suggested that the effects of cohabitation in comparison to marriage may be larger in countries where cohabitation is uncommon, less socially accepted and where traditional gender roles are common ( Soons and Kalmijn, 2009 ; Lee and Ono, 2012 ). Of course, further studies would be needed to systematically test mechanisms through which cohabitation impacts parental relationship outcomes and children’s externalizing symptoms over time.

There are also several limitations. The sample size was adequate but not extremely large and there were less cohabiting couples than married couples. Findings will need to be replicated with a larger sample. In addition, the sample consisted of parents who participated in an RCT of a brief group parenting intervention 10 years earlier, which is an important consideration for generalizability of the study findings. Participation in the study program was controlled for in all analyses and was not a statistically significant predictor of any outcomes examined in the current sample. Further, although prospective, the study cannot confirm causal relationships between variables and we were not able to determine when separation or divorce occurred over the 10 years. An additional limitation due to parent’s participation the study program is that parent’s initial relationship status was assessed among children in a specific age range (2 1/2–6 years). Thus, it cannot be ascertained whether parents were cohabiting or married at their child’s birth.

One limitation related to the measurement of interparental conflict was solely assessed by parent’s communication behavior. Since interparental conflict can take many forms, future studies could be improved by including different measures that account for several aspects of interparental conflict. Studies that examine co-parenting practices in the context of relationship status changes such as separations are also needed as cooperative co-parenting has been shown to relate to less externalizing and internalizing symptoms in children post-divorce ( Lamela et al., 2015 ). Lastly, although efforts were made to recruit a sample representative of the region sampled, only a third of eligible parents contacted through preschools agreed to participate in this study. This participation rate is similar to rates found in the existing literature, but nonetheless, the current sample may differ from the population of parents in ways which are unknown.

Clinical Implications

Non-marital cohabitation is increasingly common and should be more integrated into couple- and parenting-focused programs. Evidence-based relationship education programs may be especially useful in helping individuals at risk clarify their relationship’s future, in particular regarding to marital intentions and commitment ( Rhoades et al., 2006 ). Further, an increasing number of studies indicate that relationship-focused programs for couples alone or combined with parenting programs are an effective way to strengthen marriage, parenting behavior, and improve children’s adjustment and behavioral development ( Schulz et al., 2006 ; Zemp et al., 2006 ). Couple- and parenting-focused programs aimed at cohabiting non-married couples with or without children could address important factors such as family instability and change, mother’s relationship adjustment, children’s emotional security related to parent’s relationship status, the meaning of cohabitation, commitment levels, and other risk factors such as those related to destructive conflict communication ( Kline et al., 2004 ; Rhoades et al., 2006 ; Stanley et al., 2006 ). Addressing such factors at an early stage might provide some buffer against any long-term negative effects on parental relationship outcomes and children’s behavioral problems and may foster emotional security in the family. Further studies are need that assess relationship changes dynamically among parenting samples and consider protective effects.

Data Availability Statement

Ethics statement.

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by the Technical University of Braunschweig IRB. Written informed consent to participate in this study was provided by the caregivers.

Author Contributions

HF conceptualized the study, conducted the analyses, and wrote the first draft. JM contributed significant intellectual content, including some analyses and edits to revise the manuscript. WS and KH were involved in the original study on which this manuscript was based (Future Families Study) and contributed significantly to editing and revising the manuscript. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

The manuscript was supported by grants from the German Research Foundation (FO 788/1-2 & HA 1400/14-1-3; 4-5).

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.746306/full#supplementary-material

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    Previous research also indicates that the association between cohabitation and marital dissolution particularly affects those who cohabited before engagement but not after engagement or not at all until marriage (Rhoades et al., 2009). Recent research also found that in the first year of marriages, couples who had cohabited before marriage had ...