8. Couples: Married or Not

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this chapter you will be able to do the following.

Define and identify marrieds, nonmarrieds, and cohabitors

Identify pros and cons of each group

Explain the legal aspects of marraige

Compare benefits for marrieds and nonmarrieds

A couple is simply a pair of people who identify themselves in terms of belonging together, trusting one another, and having a unique relationship, separate from all others. A “We” is close to the same thing, yet it focuses on the relationship as an entity in itself. A “We,” as shown in Figure 1, is a married couple but can also include cohabiters or other intimate non-married couple arrangements. This is a relationship that is not intimately connected to any other relationships at the same profound level as they are connected to one another.

Here is a metaphor, a “We” is much like a vehicle (relationship) that two people purchased together. Both have to put in maintenance. Both have to care for it and treat it in such a way that it runs for a long time. Sometimes, spouses or partners attack the other in such a way that the other is harmed or damaged in their trust. A “We” is the social and emotional boundary a couple establishes when they decide to become a couple. This boundary includes only the two partners. It purposefully excludes the children, extended family, co-workers, and friends. Most couples who establish a strong marital bond have successfully distinguished themselves as a “We” and partially disengaged from the existing relationships of child, grandchild, best friends, etc. That is not to say that you cut your parents, relatives, and other friends off. You just have to establish a new exclusive intimacy that only includes you and your spouse.1


Figure 1. The “We” as it Relates to a Married Couple

This also means making certain things into spouse-only issues which are the decisions, advice, and discussion that are held exclusively between partners and intentionally NOT between other family and friends. This might include types of birth control, how to run a budget, sexual techniques and practices, who might be at fault in an argument, etc. If a couple marries in their late 20’s, then they have a life-long history of intimate help-seeking and advice-giving relationships with others. These may continue as long as the help-seeking behavior doesn’t violate the intimate agreements of confidentiality for each spouse or partner. It is crucial to form the “We” so that married couples avoid the damaging intrusions of family and friends into their new marriage.

Marriage is a legal union between a man and a woman as recognized by most of the United States. Internationally, and in certain U.S. political regions, a man and another man or a woman and another woman can be legally recognized as a married couple. What are typical marriage structures? The U.S. and world-wide culturally preferred marriage type today is monogamy. Monogamy is the marriage form permitting only one spouse at a time. Almost all who have married in the U.S. have done so monogamously since the original colonies in the 1600s. Monogamy implies a 1:1 relationship and is typically desired both by married couples and by opposite and same-sex cohabiters.

Cohabitation is the heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual moving in together of two partners without going through the formalities of legal marriage. Although similar in form and function, cohabitating couples live differently in many significant day-to-day aspects when compared to married couples. Also, many cohabiting couples eventually choose to marry, but their risk of divorce is higher than among couples that never cohabited. Cohabitation will be discussed more below, but it has been increasingly popular over the last 30 years.

Polygamy is a marriage form permitting more than one spouse at the same time. Polygyny is marriage form permitting more than one wife at the same time and is the most common form of polygamy in the world’s history. Polygyny is still common and legal in many African, Middle-Eastern, Muslim, and Indian nations. It was a deep part of China’s history and prior to World War II it was common for a Chinese man to have multiple wives and many children.

Polyandry is a marriage form permitting more than one husband at the same time. This is historically and currently rare, and, if or when it was practiced, it often includes the marriage of one wife to a set of brothers with all husbands having sexual access to the wife. Polyandry was found among some Pacific Island cultures and among the pre-Taliban Afghanis.

What if a person marries, divorces, marries, divorces, etc.? Serial Monogamy or Serial Polygamy is the process of establishing intimate marriage or cohabiting relationships that eventually dissolve and are followed by another intimate marriage or cohabiting relationship, that eventually dissolve, etc. in a series. Thus polygamists have simultaneous multiple spouses while serial monogamists or serial polygamists have multiple spouses in a sequence of relationships. Millions of U.S. adults will experience serial marriages and divorces. Many marry then divorce, yet still want to be married again. Many others who suffered through their parents’ unhealthy marriages and divorces also want to marry, knowing firsthand how risky that might be.


States have power when it comes to allowing marriage. The power held by states to legalize the economic, social, spiritual, emotional, or physical union or disunion of a man and a woman is not only traditional, but also enduring in U.S. history. Centuries ago, fathers, clan or kinship leaders, religious leaders, and community members had the rights to marry, which are now claimed by the state or nation. True, states don’t get involved in the spiritual or physical union, they just license it or legalize it the same way they license drivers or certify the legal sale of property. Almost every year, there are about two legally sanctioned state marriages in the U.S. for every one legally sanctioned state divorce decree.

In Figure 3 below you can see just how many legal marriages were granted per divorce for the years 1960-2005. These numbers are presented as a ratio (number of marriages/number of divorces per year). In 1960 there were almost four marriages per divorce. As the rate of divorce increased we see that there were about two marriages per one divorce. Notice that since the late 1990s the ratio is increasing slightly because divorces are down.

For decades newscasters and educators have warned that one in two marriages “end in divorce.” Sounds frightening, doesn’t it? Is it true? Not really, since divorce never reached the actual 50% mark. Based on surveys of exactly how many people have ever been divorced in their lifetimes, most will tell you it is closer to 43% in the U.S.’s worst divorce rates ever (1980s).2

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts annual surveys of the U.S. population and publishes them as the Current Population Surveys. Table 1 represents U.S. family types as of October 1, 2008. You will notice that marrieds comprised the largest number of family types in 2008. Single never-marrieds are the second largest type and include roughly 6.8 million cohabiters.

Look at Figure 4 to see the U.S. graphical trend of actual numbers in millions of family types. It shows that the single largest type of family in the U.S. has always been marrieds then never-marrieds. The divorced category overtook the widowed category in the 1970s and has been higher ever since. Why are the trends upward? Simple: these are numbers and not rates nor percentages. The population has grown and therefore the population size has been steadily increasing.

Figure 3. United States Ratio of Marriages per Divorces 1960-2005.3


Table 1. U.S. Family Types, 2008.4
















Never Married-Single



Total Families 15 and over



Robert and Jeanette Lauer are a husband-wife team who study commitment and endurance of married couples. They have identified 29 factors among couples who had been together for 15 years or more. They found that both husbands and wives reported as their number 1 and 2 factors that “My spouse is my best friend” and “I like my spouse as a person.”5 The Lauers also studied the levels of commitment couples had to their marriage. The couples reported that they were in fact committed to and supportive of not only their own marriage, but to marriage as an institution.

Irreconcilable differences are common to marriage and the basic strategy to deal with them is to negotiate as much as is possible, accept the irresolvable differences, and finally live happily with them. Keeping a positive outlook on your marriage is essential. As was mentioned above, as long as a couple is married they are technically at risk of divorce. However not all divorce risks are created equally. Newly married couples 1-10 years have a great deal of adjustment to work through, especially during the first 36 months. They have new boundaries and relationships to establish. They have to get to know one another and negotiate agreements about the who, what, why, and how of their day-to-day lives together. The longer they stay together, the lower their risks of divorce.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, two young people may marry at 18 without parental consent in 49 states.6 In Mississippi individuals have to be at least 21 years old to marry without their parent’s permission. Individuals who marry in their teens (even 17, 18, & 19) have much higher rates of marital dissolution. Some argue that this might be because the individual continues to change up until about age 25-26 when they are fully psychologically mature. Try to remember who you thought was attractive your senior year in high school. Would you still find them attractive today? Some who marry in their teens actually outgrow one another, including their loss of attraction that stems from their changed tastes. When marital data is collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, it often shows that those marrying in their teen years have the highest rates of having ever been divorced.

As is mentioned above, most unwed mothers end up marrying the biological father of their baby. These marriages often end in divorce more than marriages for non-pregnant newlyweds. The existence of children at the time of the wedding is often associated with higher divorce rates. Family Scientists have borrowed from the physics literature a concept called entropy which is roughly defined as the principle that matter tends to decay and reduce, toward its simplest parts. For example a new car, if parked in a field and ignored, would eventually decay and rot. A planted garden, if left unmaintained, would be overrun with weeds, pests, and yield low if any crop.

Marital Entropy is the principle that if a marriage does not receive preventative maintenance and upgrades it will move towards decay and break down. Couples who take ownership of their marriage and who realize that marriage is not a state of constant bliss (nothing really is) and that it often requires much work, will experience more stability and strength when they nurture their marriage. These couples care for their marriage, acknowledging the propensity relationships have to decay if unattended.

Many individuals struggle to completely surrender their single status. They mentally remain on the marriage market in case someone better than their current spouse comes along. Norval Glenn (1991) argued that many individuals see marriage as a temporary state while they keep an eye open for someone better. More honest vows would be as long as we both shall love or as long as no one better comes along (page 268). Glenn gets at the core of the cultural values associated with risks of divorcing.7

In Figure 5 you can see the median duration of marriage for people 15 and older by sex and age. This data is exclusively for those who ended up divorcing. Even those who do divorce can expect a median of about eight years for both men and women. The average couple could expect to stay married quite a long time.

A positive outlook for your marriage as a rewarding and enjoyable relationship is a realistic outlook. Some couples worry about being labeled naïve if they express the joys and rewards their marriage brings to their lives. Be hopeful and positive on the quality and duration of your marriage because the odds are still in your favor. You’ve probably seen commercials where online matchmaking Websites strut their success in matching people to one another. There have been a few criticisms of online marital enhancement services, but millions have used them. Along with DVD’s, CDs, self-help books, and seminars there are many outlets for marital enhancement available to couples who seek them. Very few know that there is now a Website that offers support to marrieds who want to be proactive and preventative in their relationship.8

Doing your homework cannot be emphasized enough in the mate selection process. The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” truly does apply to mate selection. Taking your time, understanding yourself, waiting until you are 20-something or older, and finding a good friend in your spouse can make all the difference in the marital experience you have. Keep in mind that very few people marry someone they meet as strangers. Most of us end up marrying someone they find through their social networks such as work, campus, dorms, frats and sororities, friends of friends, and other relationship-based connections.


Figure 4. United States 1950-2000 Numbers of Family Types (in Millions).9

There also continues to be a trend of delaying first marriage until later in life. In 2005, the U.S. median age at marriage was about 27 years for men (Washington DC was 29.9 years and Utah was 24.6) and 25.5 for women (Washington DC was 29.8 years and 22.1 for Utah).10

Marriage is very popular among U.S. adults, in part because it does offer many rewards that unmarried people don’t enjoy. A sociologist named Linda Waite co-wrote a book with Maggie Gallagher called The Case For Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (2001, Doubleday). As its title implies, this book summarizes basic trends that have been found among married people for decades. Marriage has become socially controversial in part because of the intense political efforts to legalize marriage for same-sex couples. Regardless of your moral position on the issue of same-sex marriage, you can see the political quest for it as an indicator of just how rewarding it is to be legally a “married couple.”

Figure 5. United States Median Duration of Marriages for Divorced People 15 Years and Over by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2004


There are numerous studies and books on the benefits of marriage to married individuals. Table 2 lists ten categories of these known benefits for you to consider.

Table 2. Ten Benefits of Being Married in Contrast to Being Single.

Better physical and emotional health

More wealth and income

Positive social status

More and safer sex

Life-long continuity of intimate relationships

Safer circumstances for children

Longer life expectancy

Lower odds of being crime victims

Enhanced legal and insurance rights and benefits (tax, medical, and inheritance)

Higher self-reported happiness


Cohabitation has been studied extensively for the last three decades, especially in contrast between cohabiting and married couples. Clear findings consistently show that cohabiting and marriage are two different creatures. Those who cohabit have less clarity on the intention and direction of the relationship than do marrieds. Further people who cohabit, then later marry, are more likely to divorce than those who never cohabited. In 2010 the U.S. Center for Disease Control reported that cohabitation is very common in our day:

“Among both men and women aged 15-44 who had ever cohabited and or married, the largest proportion cohabited before their first marriage. Approximately 28% of men and women cohabited before their first marriage, whereas 23% of women and 18% of men married without ever cohabiting. About 15% of men and women had only cohabited (without ever marrying), and less than seven percent of men and women first cohabited after their first marriages ended.”11

This report also stated that some of the cohabitation relationships dissolved while others transitioned to marriage. Less educated cohabiters cohabited longer while college-graduated cohabiters transitioned to marriage more.

There are a number of different ways of measuring cohabitation. The U.S. Census Bureau reported about 6,209,000 U.S. Unmarried-Partner households in 2007. Since a household in this case contains at least two persons we can derive 6,209,000 x 2= 12,418,000 unmarried adults sharing households. These data were extrapolated from the American Community Survey, and the types of unmarried-partner households are identified in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Number of Unmarried-Partner Households in the United States, 2007.12


Although this survey did not identify sexual orientation, many find these to be good indicators of heterosexual partner pairs (about 5.456 million) and homosexual partners (about 754,000). Keep in mind that there are millions of gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals who do not have a partner living in the same household. David Popenoe reported on attitudes about cohabitation and said that most teenagers report that living together before marrying is a good idea and that 50% of U.S. women ages 19-44 had cohabited at some point in their lives. He also compared U.S. couples to couples in other Western nations and found that in the U.S. about 7.6% of all couples cohabited, much lower than most other countries in Western Europe.13

Not all cohabitation experiences are the same. There are people who cohabit more than once. Serial cohabiters are persons who have a series of cohabiting relationships over the course of time. These persons tend to be poorer and less educated in the U.S. When or if these persons ever marry, their divorce risks are over two times higher than those who never cohabited in a series.14

A recent study on U.S. cohabitation and marriage was published online by the National Center for Health Statistics using Wave 6 data.15 They surveyed 15-44 year old singles in 2002 and assessed their relationship patterns. They found that only nine percent were currently cohabiting and that less than 30% were likely to still be cohabiting after five years together (compared to 78% of marrieds still together after five years). Part of this is because many of the cohabiters eventually married while some ended the relationship. In fact, among first-time cohabiters, 65% eventually married. This report also stated that 28% had cohabited before their first marriage.

Based on data presented in this report, you can see in Figures 7 (women) and 8 (men) patterns of marriage and cohabitation among those who were in either of these relationships (does not include singles). You quickly begin to see patterns of higher marriage and lower cohabitation across the age categories. The older people were much more likely to be married than the younger ones. You can also see that cohabitation was more common among younger groups. This again confirms the belief among younger people in the U.S. that cohabitation is normal or expected.

Figure 7. Percentage of Women 15-44 who were in a Union: Married or Cohabiting by Specific Age Categories.


Those cohabiters who get pregnant often have two choices: marry or break up. Breaking up is often more common than marrying.16 Another recent study reported on lower commitment levels among cohabiting couples, and that the less religious were more likely to cohabit than marry.17 Lichter and Qian (2008) reported that cohabiting couples’ intentions to marry plays into their relationship outcome. In other words, if they move in together thinking they will marry someday, it may lead to a longer relationship as long as both have the same intention and neither changes their mind.

Figure 8. Percentage of Men 15-44 who were in a Union: Married or Cohabiting by Specific Age Categories.


Finally, there are known benefits to being married and in a long-term relationship rather than being single, divorced, or cohabiting. Table 3 shows health benefits from the cohabitation and marriage study of the National Survey of Family Growth. Better mental and physical health with better medical insurance coverage prove to be crucial qualities for marrieds. As far as children are concerned, having better care and better adult outcomes are crucial factors.

Table 3. Health Benefits Known to be an Advantage among Married Persons in the U.S.18

Generally better mental and physical health outcomes

Longer lives

Higher rates of health insurance coverage

Lower prevalence of cardiovascular disease

Better health and well-being of children

Children born to unmarried mothers are at greater risk for poverty, teen childbearing, poor school achievement, and marital disruption in adulthood than children born to married mothers

There are also known financial benefits when comparing marrieds to non-marrieds. More wealth accumulation, higher assets, and higher monthly income are consistent among marrieds. Figure 9 shows the annual earnings of married individuals compared to single men and single women. The first thing you notice is that marrieds have consistently higher annual incomes. In 2007 specifically, marrieds had $28,231 more income than single men and $42,293 more than single women. The difference is even more pronounced if both incomes are taken into consideration for dual income marrieds (i.e., in 2007 dual income couples had $86,435 which is $42,077 higher than single men and $56,139 more than single women).

Figure 9. Annual Income from 1990-2007 in 2007 Constant Dollars Comparing Marrieds to Single Men and Single Women.19


Table 4 summarizes the known benefits to marrieds over non-marrieds that have been established through numerous studies over the last three decades. Married people are safer and less prone to get into trouble than others. There is a buffering effect that accompanies having a life-long devoted spouse who helps deflect stress and hardships on a daily basis. Thus some of the health benefits of longer life, less suicide, more stable health coverage, and less illness and addiction. Also, marrieds have more social support, more continuity in long-term relationships, and especially more closeness for men in intimate family relationships. Husbands are less likely to abuse and be violent toward their wives than are boyfriends and partners. Married people have clear life-long goals and tend to buy homes, invest, and plan for retirement more than others. The government and military recognize spouses and reward them with tax breaks, benefits, and other sources of coverage and support more than others. In later life, many elderly report that their family relationships are very supportive and important to them. Studies show that the elderly enjoy their human investment in their children and grandchildren that yields emotional and social rewards throughout their golden years.

Table 4. Known Benefits Enjoyed by Married Couples in Comparison to Non-Married Persons.

Less likely to become victims of crime

Less likely to commit crimes

Less addiction

Fewer accidents (especially among men)

Less suicide

Better stress management because spouse is a buffer to life’s stresses

More social and emotional support (less loneliness)

More intimate connections to family members

Long-term continuity in family relationships of children, in-laws, grandchildren, etc.

Lower risk of domestic violence for women

Longer life expectancies

More and better self-rated sex

More emotional and financial security (for both spouses)

Less uncertainty about direction of life and goals

More cost effective to live in married versus single circumstances

Tax deductions

More military benefits

More accumulated belongings and investments

More medical benefits

More legal rights

  1. see Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee (1995) The Good Marriage ISBN 0-446-67248-3; Warner Pub
  2. see U.S. Census for tables at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/marr-div/2004detailed_tables.html
  3. Taken from Statistical Abstracts of the United States on 27 March 2009 from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2008/2008edition.html; Table 77, Section 2.
  4. Taken from the Internet on 30 March 2009 from Table A1. Marital Status of People 15 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Personal Earnings, Race, and Hispanic Origin/1, 2008 http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2008.html and see Table UC1. Opposite Sex Unmarried Couples by Labor Force Status of Both Partners: 2008 retrieved 30 March 2009
  5. from http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2008.html
  6. see ‘Til Death Do Us Part: How Couples Stay Together. 1986 by Robert Lauer and also Google Lauer and Lauer and Kerr various years
  7. see http://www.ncsl.org/
  8. See “The Recent Trend in Marital Success in the United States” by Norval D. Glenn Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 53, No. 2 (May, 1991), pp. 261-270
  9. http://marriage.eharmony.com/).
  10. Taken from United States Census Bureau on 30 March 2009 from Table MS-1. Marital Status of the Population 15 Years Old and Over, by Sex and Race: 1950 to Present http://www.census.gov/
  11. Taken from the Internet on 2 April, 2009 from R1204. Median Age at First Marriage for Men: 2005 and R1205. Median Age at First Marriage for Women: 2005
  12. Retrieved 18 March 2010 from Marriage and Cohabitation in the United States: A Statistical Portrait Based on Cycle 6 (2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_028.pdf, Tables 13 and 14.
  13. Retrieved 17 March, 2010 from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0063.pdf Table 63. Unmarried-Partner Households by Region and Sex of Partners: 2007.
  14. Popenoe, D. (2009) Cohabitation, Marriage, and Child Wellbeing: A Cross-National Perspective, Social Sci. and Public Policy, Vol 46:429-436
  15. see Lichter, D.T. and Qian, Z. 2008, Nov. Vol 70 4, pages 861-878; J. of Marriage and Family
  16. retrieved 23 March 2010 at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_028.pdf
  17. see Lichter, D.T. and Qian, Z. 2008, Nov. Vol. 70, 4, 863.
  18. Stanley, S. M. et al, 2004 J. of Family Issues, Vol. 25, No. 4 496-519, “Maybe I Do Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Nonmarital Cohabitation”
  19. Marriage and Cohabtitation in the United States: A Statistical Portrait Based on Cycle 6(2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth Retrieved 23 March 2010 www.cdc.gov. page 12
  20. Retrieved 23 March 2010 www.census.gov