Married couples seek less independence compared to unmarried cohabitating couples

Unmarried cohabitating couples have higher levels of intimacy, self-determination, and democracy than married couples, finds research from the University of Cologne.

The study, conducted by Nicole Hiekel and Michael Wagner, investigated the extent to which relationship practices such as intimacy, self-determination, and democracy affect the risk of a couple splitting up, comparing married and cohabitating couples in Germany.

They found that the new societal norm of an ‘individualised relationship’, meaning being an individual within a relationship that fosters a sense of independence and self-reliance but also more emotional closeness and egalitarianism, is more feasible for cohabiters than married couples in the studied country.

“The declining importance of social institutions and norms around relationships has changed, and therefore what people seek in a relationship has changed. Individuals seek deeper intimacy, self-determination, and democracy – which they can get from an individualised relationship,” says Professor Wagner.

The findings suggest that having children, more common among married couples, could explain why married couples are less likely to live up to the standards of individualised relationship practices. Children limit the capacities of married couples to invest in the socio-emotional aspects of relationship function, decreases opportunities to feel and act self-determined and to strike a more egalitarian relationship bargain.

The research also reveals that cohabiters reported higher levels of individualised relationships practises. But because cohabiters invest less (kids, homeownership) into their partnership they are more likely to end in separation than marriages.

Married couples benefit more from high levels of emotional closeness than cohabiters. Marriage thus remains an institution that protects people more from the experience of dissolution, particularly when they feel emotionally close to their partner.

Source: Nicole Hiekel, Michael Wagner, Individualized Relationship Practices and Union Dissolution: Differences Between Marriage and Cohabitation, European Sociological Review, Volume 36, Issue 6, December 2020, Pages 868–885,

Featured Photo by Jovaughn Stephens on Unsplash.

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