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Gia đình đã thay đổi trong nhiều thập niên vừa qua. Thay vì lập gia đình thì nhiều người sống với nhau hay gọi là “sống thử”. Một vài cặp đôi sống thử này cuối cùng cũng kết hôn với nhau. Nhưng cũng có nhiều người chia tay nhau. Rất ít người tiếp tục sống thử với nhau trong thời gian dài.
Families have changed in the last several decades. Instead of getting married, many people are living together or “cohabiting”. Some of these cohabitating couples eventually get married. Many of them break up. Very few stay together as cohabitants for long.
Is cohabitation a good alternative to marriage? Is it a good way to “test out” the relationship? Many researchers have looked into these questions. In her book Marriage-Lite Patricia Morgan reviews the research into the results of cohabitation, compared with marriage, and finds that marriage is much more than “just a piece of paper”. Marriage fundamentally changes the nature of a relationship, leading to many striking differences.
How cohabitation differs from marriage
Living together leads to living alone
In the mid-1960s, only five per cent of single women lived with a man before getting married. By the 1990s, about 70 per cent did so. Some people think that living together will lead automatically to marriage, but that often is not the case. Many cohabitations break up. For many other couples, cohabitation is viewed as an alternative to marriage rather than a preparation for it. However, this alternative is less likely than marriage to lead to a long-term stable commitment.
Cohabiting relationships are fragile. They are always more likely to break up than marriages entered into at the same time, regardless of age or income. On average, cohabitations last less than two years before breaking up or converting to marriage. Less than four per cent of cohabitations last for ten years or more. Cohabiting also influences later marriages. The more often men and women cohabit, the more likely they are to divorce later.
Both men and women in cohabiting relationships are more likely to be unfaithful to their partners than married people.
At all socio-economic levels, cohabiting couples accumulate less wealth than married couples. Married men earn 10 to 40 percent more than single or cohabiting men, and they are more successful in their careers, particularly when they become fathers. Married women without children earn about the same as childless single or cohabiting women. All women who take time out of employment to have children lose some earning power-whether they are married or not. However, cohabiting and lone mothers often lack access to the father”s income, making it more difficult to balance their caring responsibilities with their careers.
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Cohabitants have more health problems than married people, probably because cohabitants put up with behaviour in their partners which husbands and wives would discourage, particularly regarding smoking, alcohol and substance abuse. Cohabitants are also much more likely to suffer from depression than married people.
Women in cohabiting relationships are more likely than wives to be abused. In one study, marital status was the strongest predictor of abuse-ahead of race, age, education or housing conditions.
The effects on children
What happens to children born to cohabiting parents?
Some people believe that if a cohabiting couple have children together, then they must be committed and stable. However, cohabitations with children are even more likely to break up than childless ones. About 15 percent of one-parent families are created through the break-up of cohabiting unions. One study found that less than ten per cent of women who have their first child in a cohabiting relationship are still cohabiting ten years later. About 40 per cent will have married, 50 percent will be lone unmarried mothers because their relationships have broken up.
Today, more than 20% of children are born to cohabiting couples. However, only about one third of those children will remain with both their parents throughout their childhood. That is partly because cohabiting couples who have children are even more likely to break up than childless couples, and partly because cohabiting couples who subsequently marry are more likely to divorce, and to divorce earlier.
All this means that children born to cohabiting parents are more likely to experience a series of disruptions in their family life, which can have negative consequences for their emotional and educational development. Children living with cohabiting couples do less well at school and are more likely to suffer from emotional problems than children of married couples.
Financially, children of cohabitants are less well off than children whose parents are married. Married fathers are more likely than cohabiting fathers to support their children. Even after the break-up of their parents” relationship, children of divorced parents are more likely than children of cohabiting couples who have split up to receive support from their fathers.
Unmarried fathers, even those cohabiting with their children”s mother, do not automatically fulfill the same parental duties as married or divorced fathers. If their parents break up, children born to cohabiting couples are less likely than children of divorced parents to maintain contact with their fathers.
Cohabitants as “step-parents”
When married or cohabiting couples with children divorce, or break up, one parent sometimes remarries or moves in with a new person. One scholar estimated that, before their seventeenth birthday, more than one in twenty children would live in a formalized step-family where one parent (usually their mother) has remarried, and over one in fourteen children would live in an informal “step-family” where their mother is living with someone who has neither a biological nor a legal tie to her child. Statistically speaking, these informal cohabiting step-families are the most unsafe environments for children. Children living in cohabiting step-families are at significantly higher risk of child abuse. Live-in and visiting boyfriends are much more likely than biological fathers or married step-fathers to inflict severe physical abuse, sexual abuse and child killing.
Living in a step-family poses other risks to young people. In one study, young men living in step-families were 1.4 times more likely to be serious or persistent offenders. More than one in five young people living in step-families runs away from home.
Private arrangement or public commitment?
Free to choose?
Some people describe cohabitation as a rebellion against traditional family forms, striking a blow for freedom and independence. While some people do make a conscious choice to avoid marriage, others simply “drift into” cohabitation. Many other people live together because it seems the best choice available at the time, even though they see it as far from ideal.
Finances might influence people”s choices. For many people, especially those in low-paid or irregular work, getting married can seem too expensive. Some people also fear that getting married is a high- risk gamble because no-fault divorce laws make it easier for a spouse to walk away from their commitment.
More than “just a piece of paper”
Traditionally, marriage has had a special status in British law and society. Marriage developed as a way to provide stability for families and for all of society. Marriage is a declaration of commitment which has public as well as private consequences. It is an institution which offers benefits not only to the couples themselves but to society as a whole. When people marry, they commit themselves not only to being sexual partners, but also to taking care of each other-for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. They promise to stick by each other through the ups and downs that occur in everyone”s lives. This promise and the trust it builds encourage partners to make sacrifices for the good of the family. Traditionally, British government and society have supported the institution of marriage by giving it certain privileges and responsibilities, and by enforcing consequences for breaking marriage vows.
A decrease in the number of marriages and an increase in cohabitation both have come in the wake of a large increase in divorce in the last thirty years. Some people argue that these trends are due to people being less willing to make commitments, or perhaps being more fearful that others will break their promises.
The role of the state
Although a good deal of evidence shows that cohabiting relationships have higher risks of poor outcomes, governmental and other official bodies continue to treat cohabitation and marriage as essentially the same. For example, the Lord Chancellor stated that “the growing acceptance of long-term cohabitation as a preliminary or alternative to marriage” means that “many such relationships must be at least as stable as marriage”. “The most important thing is the quality of the relationship, not the institution in itself”.”
Some people argue that marriage should not receive any special recognition from the state. They claim that cohabitants should have the same legal rights and responsibilities which used to be reserved for marriage, from property rights to the right to take decisions about children”s lives.
Currently, when a married couple divorces, a court decides how to divide their property, based upon the needs of both spouses and any children they have. However, when a cohabiting couple break up, each person retains ownership of their own property. This system ensures that individuals who commit themselves to the institution of marriage have some legal protection. It also protects the freedom of those who choose to live with each other outside the bounds of marriage.
Although a marriage always requires two people, a divorce sometimes requires just one person, leaving the other in the cold. The state could help strengthen the institution of marriage by ending “no-fault”, non-consensual or unilateral divorce, and by introducing divorce settlements which penalise, rather than favour, the spouse who leaves or behaves badly.