So much for the undying stereotype that women need marriage like a fish needs fish gills: New research has found that women get just as much of an emotional boost out of just shacking up as they do out of making it legal. And “emotional boosts” are supposed to be the lady drug of choice.

Researchers Sara E. Mernitz and Claire Kamp Dush at Ohio State University spliced data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to see how men and women experienced transitions into cohabitation, marriage, or going into a second cohabitation against measures of self-stated emotional well-being. The results, according to Yahoo Health, were thus:

  • Women had a similar decrease in emotional distress when they moved in with a partner and when they got married.
  • Men and women had a drop in emotional distress when they cohabited with a second partner or remarried.
  • Men didn’t have a decrease in emotional distress when they cohabited for the first time, but they did experience a decrease when they went directly into marriage.

Mernitz told the Washington Post she was surprised there wasn’t a greater boost for marriage for women between cohabitation versus marriage. She theorized that it’s possible men don’t take cohabitation as seriously as women—maybe they think of it as a “trial run” or “testing period,” whereas women see it as a sign of serious commitment on the road to wedded bliss. Or it could also be due to the positive benefits of the larger association of coupledom that cohabitation grants. “At one time marriage may have been seen as the only way for young couples to get the social support and companionship that is important for emotional health,” study co-author Claire Kamp Dush said in a news release.

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Better yet was the finding that there are also emotional benefits from moving in for the second time, whether from a first living-together-situation to a second, or a living-situation that turned into marriage. Kamp Dush thinks this is due to having better self-selection measures in place the second go-round. (Alternately, after marrying twice, one should probably just live alone for eternity and keep dating.)

Meanwhile, men faced less emotional distress if they went directly into marriage-style living, but not if they just moved in with someone. This, researchers think, is because of that aforementioned tendency men have to “test” relationships through living together, whereas marriage to them means really choosing someone.

Maybe all this really is about culturally held notions of what moving in together means (one part of the study found that when a child was involved, cohabiting decreased emotional stress, which would make sense for logistical sake alone). Maybe women find simple commitment, ring or not, comforting, whereas men see it as merely the beginning of a commitment-like act that may or may not lead to something more serious.

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Or maybe its on par with recent research that suggests when it comes to libido and sex, women are way more footloose and fancy free than previously assumed, whereas men are much more old-fashioned. Granted, this research is drawn from a while back, so it’s possible men and women are both even more lax about living together than this research suggests given that marriage is on the decline overall. So maybe it’s that women are actually more terrified of getting stuck in something they can’t easily exit.

I prefer to think that living together is a deeper commitment for both parties, both a declaration of one’s affections and a test that proves a more longterm endurance and compatibility. And people who’ve already living with someone or been married may find such ventures more comfortable because they already know the comfort that intimacy can bring. And seeing that divorce is still pretty common, it may appear far more pragmatic to just test the waters and see what takes.

But the main takeaway for researchers, and us, is simple: Why marry the cow when living with it will do just as well?

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“We have so much research arguing that marriage is beneficial for mental health,” Kamp Dush told Yahoo Health. “We didn’t expect to find that cohabitation could be as beneficial.”

Why wouldn’t it be? In theory, it will ease the burden of finance without the heavy potential cost of divorce. Alternately, it confers most of the same benefits: Shared lives, shared social networks, shared space, shared dishes, a sex life (presumably).

That’s not to say it won’t suck when you break up: Even when you save the headache of divorce if you split, it’s not as if it’s a cakewalk to end, say, a years-long serious relationship with a live-in partner just because you never signed on the dotted line. There can be furniture to split, joint checking accounts to dissolve, shared debt, often property, and then, of course, pets—or even children had out of wedlock. Anyone who has ever lived with anyone for any amount of time and really thrown all in knows splitting up feels like a divorce.

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But if what Kamp Dush theorizes is true, that men do in fact get a greater “emotional return” from marriage, that wouldn’t be shocking. Most research has long said men are the ones who get the better deal, and that long-term coupling is enough to confer those health benefits, which is mainly that it is thought to lower the risk of premature death.

But if you can do all that and never risk the emotional bummer of divorce, why wouldn’t you? It will still suck to breakup, but it will certainly cost less than a wedding. At any rate, nowadays, shacking up with someone means you’re at least in something serious enough to be taken, well, seriously. And that may be all you need. Some of us have already known this for a long time, which is, of course, why cohabitation agreements exist in the first place.


Illustration by Tara Jacoby.