Cohabitating couples now part of the Canadian mainstream

But UVic researcher finds many are struggling in undefined terrain

Date published: 2008-03-19 3:26:20 PM


Living together before marriage is becoming increasingly common, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to more stable marriages, according to Zheng Wu, chair of the sociology department at the University of Victoria.

In fact, he found that marriages that follow cohabitation are more unstable than those that don’t, which he says may be because people who cohabit “are more self-oriented, which decreases their motivation to resolve marital problems that conflict with their personal goals and needs.”

Based on what Wu calls a “selection effect,” people more likely to divorce are also more likely to live with each other rather than plunge into marriage.

“This seems counter-intuitive,” says Wu. “If cohabitation functions as a trial marriage, then we would expect poor cohabitations to dissolve before marriage.”

Cohabitation is certainly becoming more common. Between 2001 and 2006, there has been a 19-per cent increase in the number of common-law couples. That’s one couple in six, up from one in 16 as recently as 1981. The total number of cohabiting families tripled between 1981 and 2001.

Wu’s data show that while Canadians are waiting longer to marry, they are not necessarily waiting longer to have children. Even in 2001, 46 per cent of cohabitating-couple families included a child and, by 2005, 8 per cent of all children 14 and under were living in a common-law household.

Making life even harder for cohabiting couples, the law is not changing with the times. “Canadian law-makers are lagging behind social needs, which has serious socio-legal implications,” says Wu.

For example, he is concerned that many cohabiting couples assume they have the same rights and benefits as married couples. The courts have found otherwise. “While cohabitation does not have a formal legal definition, it has become an engrained social practice and is a normal life experience for millions of Canadians,” he says.

Zheng Wu’s research on cohabitation has been supported by one of SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants.