Most people who enter into long-term relationships want their unions to thrive, to grow, to last. If those are your goals, what’s the difference in positive outcomes between living together and getting married?
Which works better in the long run?
Statistically, in almost every measure and across different cultures, classes, and religions, it might surprise you to learn that long-term relationships tend to thrive best when the couple marries. Dozens of scientific studies have come to that same conclusion.
Clearly, marriage requires a stronger level of commitment between couples and therefore presents barriers to breaking up when relationships go through tests and difficulties, as all relationships generally do. Simply living together, without the bonds of marriage, tends to make separation much more likely. In relationships where the couple decides to move in together, the bond that unites them may be more tentative, and not as strong or as committed.
Some might see that as an advantage, affording them many of the physical and economic benefits of marriage without the legal entanglements. But if that’s the case, even for one of the partners, can it indicate a lack of sufficient love and commitment?
As just one study of the long-term benefits of marriage, here’s what the Pew Research Center found in their latest large 2019 survey on the marriage/cohabitation question:
Married adults have higher levels of relationship satisfaction and trust than those living with a partner. Married adults are more likely than those who are living with a partner to say things are going very well in their relationship (58% vs. 41%). They also express higher levels of satisfaction with specific aspects of their relationship, including the way household chores are divided between them and their spouse or partner, how well their spouse or partner balances work and personal life, how well they and their spouse or partner communicate, and their spouse’s or partner’s approach to parenting (among those with children younger than 18 in the household).
Married adults are also more likely than those who are cohabiting to say they have a great deal of trust in their spouse or partner to be faithful to them, act in their best interest, always tell them the truth and handle money responsibly.
The link between marriage (vs. cohabitation) and higher levels of relationship satisfaction and trust remains even after controlling for demographic differences between married and cohabiting adults (such as gender, age, race, religious affiliation and educational attainment).
That explains some of the rational reasons why the Baha’i teachings recommend marriage rather than cohabitation. Abdu’l-Baha, in his writings about relationships and marriage, said that “This eternal bond should be made secure by a firm covenant …” – but only, he counseled, after the couple becomes carefully acquainted with each other’s inner character:
Baha’i marriage is union and cordial affection between the two parties. They must, however, exercise the utmost care and become acquainted with each other’s character. This eternal bond should be made secure by a firm covenant, and the intention should be to foster harmony, fellowship and unity and to attain everlasting life.
That “firm covenant” – a legal as well as a physical, emotional, and spiritual marriage – means publicly standing up before the people who love you both and pledging your love to one another.
But what about living together before getting married, as a trial run, to see if you’re compatible?
The University of Denver recently released a revealing study on that exact question, which concluded that “living together before being engaged can actually decrease a couple’s odds of a successful marriage.”
The researchers, psychology professors Galena Rhodes and Scott Stanley, “used a representative sample of approximately 1,600 Americans who were married for the first time between 2010 and 2019,” and learned something surprising:
The study found that 34% of marriages ended among those who lived together before being engaged, while just 23% of marriages ended among couples who waited until after engagement or marriage to move in together.
Scientific studies like this one tend to reveal both scientific and spiritual truths, which may help explain why marriage has long been a consistent religious law. To create lasting bonds, marriage has no equal – it provides a solid societal foundation for building long-term relationships. This marriage prayer from Baha’u’llah says that when the Creator:
… desired to manifest grace and beneficence to men, and to set the world in order, He revealed observances and created laws; among them He established the law of marriage, made it as a fortress for well-being and salvation, and enjoined it upon us in that which was sent down out of the heaven of sanctity in His Most Holy Book. He saith, great is His glory: “Marry, O people, that from you may appear he who will remember Me amongst My servants; this is one of My commandments unto you; obey it as an assistance to yourselves.”
This conclusion – that a well-considered, happy marriage strengthens the physical and spiritual bonds that truly unite a couple and lead to their long-term happiness – forms the basis for the Baha’i marriage laws.
So has marriage remained “a fortress for well-being and salvation” in the modern world? Given the high divorce rates and the large number of unhappy marriages, how can we build the strong fortresses of marital union the Baha’i teachings envision? We’ll examine that important question next.