Challenges Facing Cohabiting Couples Differ from those of Married Couples in this Crisis
A briefing paper prepared by Amanda Miller, University of Indianapolis, and Sharon Sassler, Cornell University, for the Council on Contemporary Families.
Much has been written about the challenges couples face as they adjust to “shelter in place” policies triggered by the coronavirus. A headline in The Atlantic terms the pandemic “a disaster for feminism.” Once dual-earner couples can no longer outsource their childcare, the author fears, many wives will fall back into the roles of 1950s and never find their way back into the workforce. More upbeat articles offer useful advice for couples who suddenly find themselves working from home on opposite sides of the dining room table. But most of the authors ignore the fact that many young couples facing this challenge today are not married. Among couples ages 18-24, for example nine percent are living with an unmarried partner, compared to seven percent who are married. The ratio of married to cohabiting couples grows with age, but still, there are more than 18 million cohabiting couples in America, and half of them are under age 35.
Cohabitors are different. The challenges facing cohabiting couples are often quite different from those of their married counterparts. For one thing, cohabitors tend to be less educated and to earn lower incomes. Among cohabiting couples in 2017, for example, nearly 53 percent earned $30,000 per year or less. And many cohabitors are parents; an estimated 5.8 million American children were living in cohabiting households in 2018. Almost twice as many cohabiting parents as married ones (46 percent vs. 26 percent) are low-income, earning 150 percent or less of the supplemental poverty measure.
Cohabitors, then, have all of the hallmarks of those most likely to be impacted economically. It is these young, lower-income workers who are the most likely to have lost their jobs in the most recent spate of layoffs. Those who are not among the more than 30 million people who recently lost their jobs are especially likely to be working in the low-wage positions that government officials have deemed essential – but not, evidently, essential enough to provide a living wage or the benefits of health care and paid leaves. The stress of having no safety net or facing the prospect of catching the virus at work is a different order of severity than the need to figure out who will keep the children quiet if both partners need to teleconference at the same time.
Those differences lead to different available choices. In a surprisingly large number of cases, cohabitors may have to “shelter in place” with a partner they did not want to be living with even before disaster struck. Less-educated and low-income couples tend to move in together much more rapidly than their more-educated counterparts, often to save money on housing. This increases the chance that the relationship will not work out, but it also creates cost barriers to separating. Long before the stresses associated with this pandemic, about one-in-five cohabiting couples that we interviewed said their relationship had deteriorated since moving in together, with many preferring to live apart but not able to afford to. How will those cohabitors who, in the words of one man we interviewed, “hate the sound of [his partner’s] voice” or worse, those in high conflict unions, manage to weather the next few months with no real way to escape even as reports of domestic violence have surged, with calls to some hotlines increased up to 35 percent for March as compared to April?
The rush to marriage? At the other extreme, some cohabitors may intensify their relationships more quickly than they would have otherwise. The need for stability, health insurance, emotional support and income pooling may encourage cohabitors to marry even if they have not reached a point where one or both actually feels ready to do so. Marriages (as well as cohabitations) that are hurried along by such outside forces tend to have higher rates of conflict and are more likely to end in divorce.
Adversity can sometimes make a relationship stronger, and it turns out that cohabiting couples have one potential advantage here. The demands of sheltering in place with both or one working from home will require many couples to renegotiate their traditional tasks and roles in the household. This may be easier for cohabitors to accomplish because they already share housework more equally than do their married counterparts and because they are less “locked in” to conventional notions of gender. Other research we have conducted with our colleague Dan Carlson reveals that equality in housework is now an important source of solidarity and satisfaction for couples, while lack of such sharing is an increasingly powerful source of conflict.
Protect cohabiting couples. Still, we cannot expect even the most egalitarian couples to weather this crisis alone. To protect the most vulnerable couples in America, additional interventions are needed. Low-income and working-class cohabiting individuals need financial help now, not in the 20 weeks Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggests it may take. Since cohabitors are more likely to lack a bank account than their married counterparts, they are especially likely to experience a delay in receiving stimulus checks. Cohabitors also need access to quality, affordable health care so that they do not find themselves yoked to an unsuitable partner just to access the medical care they need in the midst of a pandemic. President Trump’s decision not to reopen the Affordable Healthcare Act marketplace for a special enrollment period will be especially disadvantageous to cohabitors. Finally, for those who find themselves in the most dangerous positions, additional immediate funding for domestic violence organizations so that safe additional shelters can be set up is required.
Crises can encourage people to unite and pull together. But individuals and couples need backup. Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families, points out that “for the sake of their fellow Americans, we are asking millions of couples to forego the interactions with friends and family members that are a critical source of well-being. The least we can do is make sure we don’t stint on the social and economic supports that government can provide.”
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The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at email@example.com, cell 360-556-9223.
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May 5, 2020Topics: Cohabitation, Committed Relationships & Marriage / Couples Conflict, Separation & Divorce / Division of Labor in Families / Domestic Violence & Child Abuse / Economic Inequality / Marriage & Divorce / Public Policy / Trauma and Disaster