“Would you buy a car without test-driving it?”

So goes the degrading adage warning couples to cohabitate before marriage. Besides insinuating that a wife might want to divorce her husband because he often misses the laundry hamper and occasionally snores, cohabitating just to “test out” marriage is a bad idea.

With recent statistical results from Institute for Family Studies, we can see this isn’t just opinion. The disadvantages to living together before marriage are clear. And this impacts not just the individual or couple, but all taxpayers.

Despite overwhelming evidence that cohabitation leads to statistically significant disparities in levels of commitment, instances of infidelity and conflict, satisfaction, and stability, the majority of American adults believe that cohabitation is a good idea.  

In fact, 65 percent of American adults agree that dating couples ought to move in together before marriage. More specifically, 76 percent of millennials are very likely to endorse the move-in compared to 36 percent of the elder generation. While trends show that you’re more likely to support cohabitation if you’re non-religious or liberal in ideology, Christians and conservatives are still in support of it in startling numbers. Liberals are in favor by 86 percent compared to the still high 37 percent of conservatives. Self-professing Christians have the lowest approval rating of cohabitation, but at the alarming, and rather surprising, rate of 40 percent.

We culturally accept that “serious” couples will move in together as a final test of compatibility or as a grand gesture of commitment. Or was that just every romantic comedy I’ve ever seen? In fact, research shows that the most common reason for sharing a home is actually just spending more time together.

Couples should second-guess their decisions to become roommates according to IFS’s findings. Studies controlled for education, relationship duration, and age found that cohabitating couples had lower levels of commitment, higher likelihood of infidelity and conflict, and an increased likelihood of the relationship ending. These results pale in comparison to married individuals reporting greater satisfaction with their overall relationships. They self-describe as “very happy” more often compared to live-in couples. Married couples are much more likely to report themselves in the top groups for satisfaction, commitment, and stability.

The effects of poorer relationships don’t just affect the couples involved. They also greatly stunt the healthy development of involved children. According to the Census Bureau, three million children live with unmarried parents in America. By age twelve, 40 percent of children will live in a cohabitating household, usually with a mother and her live-in boyfriend. Four out of 10 children born in the United States are born to unmarried women with the majority (58 percent) born to women living with the child’s father.

Does this imply that all unmarried parents are bad parents?

No, absolutely not. Nearly every parent wants what’s best for their child and would move mountains to get them the best of everything they can. That’s exactly why these findings are so critical to express to Americans, especially in our state of Mississippi, where unwed birth rates are the highest in the nation.

Here are the factual risks for children in unmarried households:

  • Single mother families are about five times as likely to experience poverty as married-parent families.
  • In 2015, 7.5 percent of married-couple families were in poverty, compared to 36.5 percent of single mother families.
  • Boys raised in single-parent households are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated, compared with boys raised in an intact, married home, again controlling for differences in parental income, education, race, and ethnicity.

The evidence is clear. Married couples are statistically more content and actualized in their relationships than unmarried couples sharing a home. Once couples bring children into the mix, disparities between married and unmarried couples grow and affect our children more often and with more magnitude.

And this impacts everybody, as taxpayers will be footing the bill for the various welfare programs that support those families in poverty. And despite the best of intentions to help citizens like single mothers, we know, based on years of evidence and analysis, that such programs don’t act as a trampoline for escaping poverty. No, welfare programs actually work as snare nets, trapping single mothers into a life of dependence that discourages working and marriage through perverse incentives and roadblocks from federal mandates.

To avoid such unintended consequences, the “success sequence” remains a good public policy prescription for young people. Graduate from high school. Get a Job. Get married. Have children. Do it in that order, if at all possible.

This column appeared in the Madison County Journal on March 21, 2019.