Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 505–520 | Cite as

Is Cohabitation As Good As Marriage for People’s Subjective Well-Being? Longitudinal Evidence on Happiness and Life Satisfaction in the British Household Panel Survey

  • Morten BlekesauneEmail author
Research Paper


This study investigates changes in happiness and life satisfaction associated with transitions into cohabitation and marriage in 12 waves from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) collected between 1997 and 2009. Theory suggests that happiness is an emotional state that is linked to one’s physiological reactions to life events, whereas satisfaction is a cognitive evaluation that also depends on social comparisons with other important reference groups as well as the individual’s desires, expectations and hopes. A longitudinal (fixed effects) analysis that controls for time-invariant variation in subjective well-being indicates that entering cohabitation is as beneficial for people’s happiness as entering marriage. Entering marriage is slightly more satisfying than cohabitation but only among previously never-married individuals. This is true for men and women and across age and cohorts. These findings indicate that cohabitation provides similar benefits to marriage with regard to happiness but not how previously never married individuals view their overall satisfaction with their lives.


Cohabitation Marriage Satisfaction Happiness Longitudinal data 


  1. Andrews, F. M., & Withey, S. B. (1976). Social indicators of well-being (pp. 107–123). New York: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barlow, A. (2004). Regulation of cohabitation, changing family policies and social attitudes: A discussion of Britain within Europe. Law and Policy, 26, 57–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995). The normal chaos of love. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  4. Becker, G. S. (1991). A treatise on the family. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bernard, J. (1982). The future of marriage. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Blekesaune, M. (2008). Partnership transitions and mental distress: Investigating temporal order. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 879–890.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Botha, F., & Booysen, F. (2013). The gold of one’s ring is not far more precious than the gold of one’s heart: Reported life satisfaction among married and cohabitating South African adults. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 433–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation level theory (pp. 287–302). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  9. Brines, J., & Joyner, K. (1999). The ties that bind: Principles of cohesion in cohabitation and marriage. American Sociological Review, 64, 333–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brown, S. L. (2000). The effect of union type on psychological well-being: Depression among cohabitors versus marrieds. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41, 241–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Brown, S. L., & Booth, A. (1996). Cohabitation versus marriage: A comparison of relationship quality. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 668–678.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Davis, S. H., Greenstein, T. N., & Marks, J. P. G. (2007). Effects of union type on division of household labor: Do cohabiting men really perform more housework? Journal of Family Issues, 28, 1246–1272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61, 305–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Eid, M., & Larsen, R. J. (Eds.). (2008). The science of subjective wellbeing. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  17. Ermisch, J., & Francesconi, M. (2000). Cohabitation in Britain: Not for long, but here to stay. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A-Statistics in Society, 163, 153–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Evans, M. D., & Kelley, J. (2004). Effect of family structure on life satisfaction: Australian evidence. Social Indicators Research, 69, 303–349.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gonzáles, L., & Viitanen, T. K. (2009). The effect of divorce laws on divorce rates in Europe. European Economic Review, 53, 127–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Haring-Hidore, M., Stock, W. A., Okun, M. A., & Witter, R. A. (1985). Marital status and subjective well-being: A research synthesis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 47, 947–953.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Jamieson, L. (1998). Intimacy: Personal relationships in modern societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  22. Kalmijn, M., & Bernasco, W. (2001). Joint and separated lifestyles in couple relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 639–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kiernan, K. (2002). Cohabitation in Western Europe: trends, issues and implications. In A. Booth & A. C. Crouter (Eds.), Just living together: Implications of cohabitation on families, children and social policy (pp. 3–31). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  24. Lee, K. S., & Uno, H. (2012). Marriage, cohabitation, and happiness: A cross-national analysis of 27 countries. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 953–972.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Luhmann, M., Hoffmann, W., Eid, M., & Lucas, R. E. (2012). Subjective well-being and adaptation to life events: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 592–615.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lynn, P. L. (2006). Quality profile: British household panel survey. Essex: Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex.Google Scholar
  27. Mastekaasa, A. (1992). Marriage and psychological well-being: Some evidence on selection into marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 54, 901–911.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Morris, W. L., Sinclair, S., & DePaulo, B. M. (2007). No shelter for singles: The perceived legitimacy of marital status discrimination. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 10, 457–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Musick, K., & Bumpass, L. (2012). Reexamining the case for marriage: Union formation and changes in well–being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Næss, S., Blekesaune, M., & Jakobsson, N. (2015). Marital transitions and life satisfaction: Evidence from longitudinal data from Norway. Acta Sociologica, 58, 63–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Nock, S. L. (1995). A comparison of marriages and cohabiting relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 16, 53–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. ONS. (2012). Cohabitation in the UK 2012. London: Office for National Statistics.Google Scholar
  33. ONS. (2015). Families and households, 2015. Statistical bulletin. London: Office for National Statistics.Google Scholar
  34. Perelli-Harris, B., & Gassen, N. S. (2012). How similar are cohabitation and marriage? Legal approaches to cohabitation across Western Europe. Population and Development Review, 38, 435–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Reneflot, A., & Mamelund, S. E. (2012). The Association between marital status and psychological well-being in Norway. European Sociological Review, 28, 355–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ryan, J., Hughes, M., & Hawson, J. (1998). Marital status, general-life satisfaction and the welfare state: A cross-national comparison. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 39, 224–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Soons, J. P. M., & Kalmijn, M. (2009). Is marriage more than cohabitation? Well-being differences in 30 European countries. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 1141–1157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Soons, J. P. M., Liefbroer, A. C., & Kalmijn, M. (2009). The long-term consequences of relationship formation for subjective well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 1254–1270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Stack, S., & Eshleman, J. R. (1998). Marital status and happiness: A 17–nation study. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 527–536.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Stata (2007). Which references should I cite when using the vce (cluster clustvar) option to obtain Stata’s cluster-correlated robust estimate of variance? Retrieved from
  41. Stutzer, A., & Frey, B. S. (2006). Does marriage make people happy, or do happy people get married? The Journal of Socio-Economics, 35, 326–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Tsou, M. W., & Liu, J. T. (2001). Happiness and domain satisfaction in Taiwan. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2, 269–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Van de Kaa, D. J. (1987). Europe’s second demographic transition (population bulletin 42). Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.Google Scholar
  44. Vanassche, S., Swicegood, G., & Matthijs, K. (2012). Marriage and children as a key to happiness? Cross-national differences in the effects of marital status and children on well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 501–524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Waite, L. J., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financially. New York: Broadway Books.Google Scholar
  46. Wilson, B., & Stuchbury, R. (2010). Do partnerships last? Comparing marriage and cohabitation using longitudinal census data. Population Trends, 139, 37–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Social WorkUniversity of AgderKristiansandNorway

Personalised recommendations