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Is Cohabitation the Same as Marriage?

05/05/2015 10:05 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Enrique Iglesias, son of popular Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, was in the news recently -- not because he came out with a new album or because he's on a world tour. No, it's because Iglesias was asked -- again -- whether he was ever going to marry his girlfriend, former tennis pro Anna Kournikova. Never mind that they've been together for 13 years and living together since 2013. Obviously something's wrong with them otherwise they would have done what everyone else does and tied the knot by now. So Iglesias had to defend himself -- again:

"I didn't say that I don't want to get married. I don't know if I maybe came out the wrong way. What I said is that, 'We are extremely happy the way we are.' I'm not against marriage by any means. ... But when you've been with someone for such a long time, I don't think it's going to make -- bring us closer together. I don't think it's going to ... make us any happier."

Iglesias isn't the only one who thinks that way; there are numerous couples that are choosing to live together rather than marry. There's been a lot of talk and a fair amount of hand-wringing about the numbers of couples that are living together -- there are 12 times as many cohabiting couples today as there were in the 1970s (in part because we're a lot more accepting of such arrangements and in part because Millennials are -- wisely -- delaying marriage). But, a good percentage of those couples eventually go on to marry while some 40 percent split within five years. A small amount, about 10 percent, however, see living together as an alternative to marriage, and a recent study by sociologist Alison Hatch, "Saying I Don't to Matrimony: An Investigation of Heterosexual Couples Who Resist Marriage," is a revealing look at why couples prefer cohabitation over marriage.

Lest anyone think cohabitors don't know how to commit, Hatch found the opposite. And they are not merely "trying marriage on" either, which doesn't work anyway, as Susan Pease Gadoua and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels; cohabitation is viewed as second-tier to the "real thing" so you can't live together and experience what being married is like.

So what did Hatch discover? Here are two big themes on why couples reject marriage -- what marriage means and what marriage does:

"First, many of the stated reasons to resist marriage stem from the participants' concerns about the meaning of marriage. In other words, some do not want to marry because they do not agree with what marriage, as an institution or a ritual, means in today's society. These respondents were concerned with issues of civil liberties, and equality and religious freedom, and they felt as though marriage conflicted with those ideals. In addition to concerns about the meanings associated with marriage, respondents also indicated trepidation about what marriage does to the relationship. Thus, the second larger category of responses comprised fears about the consequences of marriage and the belief that the perceived risks associated with marriage outweigh the perceived benefits."

Included in the above are a few prevalent beliefs about marriage: that it creates a sense of ownership (well, it's true -- women were the property of their husband for many, many, many years); that it stifles freedom and independence (it has been called a "greedy institution"); it enables couples to become "too comfortable," and the label "wife" and the expectations that come with being a wife are troublesome for some women -- especially woman who have been married before. I've talked about the problems of being a wife before (something Oprah seems to understand), and how instead of having the egalitarian marriage couples say they want, they still end up with a "his" and "hers" marriage (and for black couples, it's even more challenging). And I've talked about how couples can get "too comfortable" in a marriage -- except, it happens with long-term cohabiting couples, too, as Susan Sarandon discovered.

Some of the problems may not be marriage per se, but living together, which is why I prefer being a LAT. Still, society understands and expects marriage, despite the fact that some see it as becoming more irrelevant at the same time same-sex couples are fighting for the right to have it. Clearly, marriage still means something.

As Hatch notes, the cohabiting couples she interviewed look and act a lot like married couples, with the same concerns and arguments, shared responsibilities (including in some cases children) and yes, even commitment. The difference -- and this is a big one -- is what they've given up by rejecting a marriage license:

"This decision often comes at a price, as many faced legal obstacles in their attempts to secure the rights and privileges given automatically to married couples (e.g., the right to coverage by a spouse's health insurance). Additionally, most to some degree faced social pressure to marry, which reflects Andrew Cherlin's (2004) argument that despite the increase in cohabitation and 'deinstitutionalization' of marriage, the symbolic significance of marriage remains high within the culture."

Once you live together as romantic partners, being unmarried creates as many complications as being married does, except you have legal protections once you tie the knot. So whichever way you choose to be partnered, married or not, there is a strong case to be made for individualizing your partnership, either in a marital plan or a cohabiting plan.

Recently, I've stumbled upon two good sources for the latter -- Cohab Monkey (which, like The New I Do, asks important questions about why the couple is moving in together, what are the union's goals, the scope of commitments, financial and non-financial, etc.) and Living Together Agreement. I just can't see anyone moving in together for the long haul without a cohabitation plan. Two of the most high-profile cohabitors I know of, economist Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevenson, wisely created such a contract. As Stevenson, an economic adviser to President Obama, has written:

"Marriage is a contract between two people about how to organize their lives together. But modern marriage is a one-size-fits-all contract -- a default written by the state legislatures. It makes no sense to me that I would want to sign the same contract with Justin that you sign with your partner. So we didn't take the standard off-the-shelf contract that we call marriage. Instead, we've talked at length about what is important to each of us, and it's that Betsey-and-Justin-specific agreement that guides our lives together. And as anyone who has studied divorce knows, the formal marriage contract doesn't actually bind our future selves. But I have something far more enduring with Justin than a wedding certificate: We have an amazing daughter, who will bind us together for, well, until death do us part."

There's nothing wrong with choosing to live together and reject marriage or choosing to live together and embrace marriage -- or, for that matter, live apart and be committed nonetheless. Whatever path you choose, you just need to choose it consciously.

A version of this article ran on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG Chronicles. Interested in creating a specific kind of marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.