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Peter Jon MitchellAs surely as spring arrives this month, wedding season won’t be far behind. But the peal of wedding bells signifies more than just the formalization of a relationship, according to new data from the Global Family and Gender Survey (GFGS).

Statistics Canada numbers also shed light on the issue.

In short, there are sharp differences in family life satisfaction and perceived relationship stability between married and cohabiting parents.

Marriage is closely related with family life satisfaction. While 62 percent of married parents with children under 18 reported being very satisfied with their family lives, the survey finds just 48 percent of cohabiting parents say the same. This satisfaction gap is evident in other Anglosphere countries, with Australians very similar to Canadians.

Why would such a gap exist?


Saying, “I do,” makes a difference. Marriage requires a declaration of commitment.

Romantic partners who cohabit have a variety of reasons and intentions. For some couples, it’s a test relationship. For others, it’s a matter of convenience. Others are committed for the long-term.

Despite the growth in common-law relationships, cohabitation remains more prone to breakup than marriage. Newly-released Statistics Canada data has found that of couples in a relationship lasting 30 years or more, almost eight in 10 are married. Just 22 percent are living common-law. While this points to the predominance of married partnerships, it also speaks to the stability of marriage.

Although many Canadians continue to marry, many think of marriage as nice but not needed. A 2018 Angus Reid Institute survey found that 53 percent of respondents reported that “marriage is simply not necessary.” Still, 57 percent of respondents agreed that marriage is “a more genuine form of commitment than a common-law relationship.”

The greater risk of breakup among cohabiting parents also shows up in the GFGS. It says cohabiting Canadian parents were more likely to report they had serious doubts about the future of their relationship with their partner in the previous 12 months. In fact, 34 percent of cohabiting parents expressed this concern compared to just 22 percent of married parent respondents.

Experiencing serious doubts about a partnership may explain lower levels of satisfaction with family life.

It’s also possible that married couples place a higher priority on their relationship. The GFGS found that 75 percent of Canadian married parents agree that their “relationship with their partner is more important than almost anything else in life.” This was one of the highest responses among the 11 developed nations in the survey. By contrast, 63 percent of parents in common-law relationships agreed with the statement.

Although marriage and cohabiting relationships look similar, they often function differently. Economic studies show that married and cohabiting families tend to organize their finances differently, with married families more likely to pool and take advantage of combined income. The economic advantage is often passed down to the kids.

Married families are also more likely to save money and invest more in retirement planning, likely reflecting a shared long-term commitment to the relationship. 

Great kids grow up in many types of families. Family structure is not destiny. We know from decades of data, however, that adults’ romantic partnership decisions affect child outcomes.

Writing about the GFGS results in a recently report, W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang note, “Differences in stability between cohabiting and married families are noteworthy because children are more likely to thrive in stable families.”

Numerous studies have found a correlation between stable, married parent families and their kids’ increased educational attainment, and reduced likelihood of getting in trouble with the law or involvement in a teen pregnancy.

Canadians remain generally positive about the idea of marriage even while they view it as unnecessary.

GFGS suggests that marriage is more than a luxury; it’s a positive contributor to family stability and family life satisfaction. Both of those factors are important aspects of well-being, particularly when considering kids’ home lives.

Canadians are free to organize their family lives as they see best, but we shouldn’t discount the stabilizing impact of marriage on families and communities.

Peter Jon Mitchell is acting family program director at the think-tank Cardus.

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