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Cohabitation Versus Marriage

Most Canadian families, 74 percent, were based in married couple unions in 1996. However, membership in this group had declined since 1986, when 80 percent of all couples were legally married. The decreased rate of marriage has been associated with a corresponding increase in common-law unions. Statistics Canada defines a common-law couple as "two persons of opposite sex who are not legally married to each other, but live together as husband and wife in the same dwelling." Although historically Canadians frowned on couples who lived together before marriage, more recently the stigma against nonmarital cohabitation has diminished, if not disappeared. By the end of the millennium, the common-law union was the fastest-growing family category. In 1996 one in seven couples in Canada was living common law, compared with one in nine in 1991. Nonmarital cohabitation was most prevalent in the province of Quebec, where one in four couples live common-law and 43 percent of all such relationships in Canada occurred (Bélanger et al. 2001).

For some Canadians, nonmarital cohabitation is a temporary state that precedes a legal marriage, but for others it is a permanent substitute for marriage. There are important differences between legal marriage and cohabitation, despite their perceived interchangeability in some quarters (Baker 2001). Canadian society provides less protection for the property rights of partners in common-law relationships than those of legally married partners. Common-law relationships are typically shorter, produce fewer children, and have a greater tendency towards spousal abuse. They are also particularly vulnerable to changes in economic circumstances (Wu and Pollard 2000). Finally, cohabiting relationships and post-cohabiting marriages are at greater risk of dissolution than are marriages not preceded by cohabitation. The last factor is likely due to what researchers call adverse selectivity. That is, these relationships attract people who are more willing to dissolve unsatisfactory relationships, rather than remain in them unhappily.

However, marriage is not necessarily better than cohabitation. Once other factors (including adverse selectivity) are controlled, physical and mental health differences between cohabiters and the currently married disappear, and both categories are better off than the divorced, separated, and single/never married.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsCanada - Defining Families, Trends In Marriage, Cohabitation Versus Marriage, Divorce, Variations On The Dominant Pattern