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Original Article
The Mental Health Implications of
Emerging Adult Long-Term Cohabitation
Emerging Adulthood
1-15
ª 2017 Society for the
Study of Emerging Adulthood
and SAGE Publishing
Reprints and permission:
sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/2167696817733913
journals.sagepub.com/home/eax
Sara E. Mernitz1
Abstract
Despite the growing prevalence of cohabitation, past attempts to identify mental health outcomes from cohabitation do not
differentiate by cohabitation duration. The current study investigated the mental health implications from long-term cohabitation,
defined as those lasting more than 3 years. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, I compared the average
individual mental health scores between time spent single, or time spent in a short-term cohabitation, and time spent in a longterm union. Results indicated that externalizing distress, defined as heavy episodic drinking, was lower during time spent in a longterm cohabitation than it was during time spent single. Unexpectedly, the average emotional distress rates were greater during
time spent in a long-term cohabitation than they were during time spent single; men appeared to be driving that effect. Overall,
long-term cohabitation did not provide an additional mental health benefit above and beyond short-term cohabitation.
Keywords
cohabitation, long-term cohabitation, mental health, NLSY97, quantitative methods
Contemporary emerging adults are increasingly more likely to
cohabit with a romantic partner prior to marriage (Cherlin,
2010; Manning, 2013), with few entering into marriage directly
from a dating relationship (Furstenberg, 2011). Approximately
60% of emerging adults cohabit in the United States (Manning,
2013); these rates are higher than those found in the United
Kingdom, Germany, Austria, and Belgium where between
30% and 50% of the adult population has ever cohabited (Kroeger & Smock, 2014). Given the high prevalence of emerging
adult cohabitation, combining all cohabitors into a single category may mask important health differences within the cohabiting population. Cohabitation likely varies by duration, yet
long-term cohabiting unions, and their associations with mental
health, defined in the current study as both internalizing and
externalizing distress, have not been explicitly examined. Past
attempts to examine change in mental health from cohabiting
unions have relied on comparing (1) current cohabitors and
married individuals (i.e., Kim & McKenry, 2002; Fleming,
White, & Catalano, 2010), (2) current cohabitors and dating
or single individuals (i.e., Lamb, Lee, & DeMaris, 2003;
Uecker, 2012), or (3) individuals’ mental health as they transition into and/or out of cohabitation (i.e., Mernitz & Dush, 2016;
Musick & Bumpass, 2012). Although cohabitation is typically
characterized by instability and short durations (Brown, 2000;
Lichter, Qian, & Mellott, 2006), cohabitation has lengthened
over time (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). These long-term cohabiting unions may have different mental health implications
than short-term cohabitations for emerging adults.
Long-term cohabitations may resemble marriage and provide similar reductions in distress to marriage. Cohabitation
in the past has been characterized by lower commitment (Stanley, Rhoades, & Fincham, 2011) and lower relationship quality
(Marcussen, 2005) than marriage. Yet, long-term cohabitations
may provide similar benefits to marriage, such as greater emotional and social support, contributing to less emotional distress
(Umberson, Thomeer, & Williams, 2013). Using the National
Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), I provide a first
examination into the mental health implications of long-term
cohabitation, defined in the current study as unions lasting longer than 3 years. This definition of long-term cohabitation is
consistent with existing research on long-term cohabitation and
union quality, where long-term cohabitation is defined as lasting longer than 3 (Willetts, 2006) or 4 years (Skinner, Bahr,
Crane, & Call, 2002). I use modeling that carefully accounts for
selection into long-term cohabitation to examine within-person
change in mental health from time spent in a long-term cohabitation compared to time spent single, defined as not being in a
union. Additionally, I examine change in mental health above
1
Department of Human Sciences, Institute for Population Research, The Ohio
State University, Columbus, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sara E. Mernitz, PhD, Population Research Center, University of Texas at
Austin, 1885 Neil Avenue Mall, Columbus, OH 43210, USA.
Email: mernitz.1@osu.edu
2
and beyond any health benefits accrued in a short-term cohabitation, defined as those lasting 3 years or less. I also examine
these associations for gender differences.
The Importance of Long-Term Cohabitation
for Emerging Adults
The prevalence of emerging adult long-term cohabitation
remains unknown, yet long-term cohabitation may be an alternative to marriage for many emerging adults. According to the
theory of emerging adulthood and identity theory, a key developmental task during the transition to adulthood is establishing
a romantic identity and forming intimacy with a romantic
partner (Arnett 2000; Erikson, 1968). Premarital relationship
experiences, including short-term cohabitation, offer ways to
establish this identity through explorations in love and sex
(Arnett, 2000), and these early experiences contribute to emerging adults’ ability to establish long-term relationships (Shulman & Connolly, 2013, 2015). Transitioning from these
short- to long-term relationships can be difficult in emerging
adulthood; emerging adults must learn to navigate their needs
with those of their partner, establishing a balance between
personal independence and closeness (Shulman & Connolly,
2013, 2015). This process does not occur solely in dating relationships; approximately 60% of emerging adults move into
cohabitation with a partner in order to test the relationship for
long-term potential (Stanley et al., 2011), suggesting that these
abilities are developed in (and out of) many different relationships, including cohabitation. However, once emerging adults
gain these abilities, they are able to establish emotionally intimate long-term relationships.
Until recently, marriage was the primary way to meet this
key developmental task of establishing intimacy with a romantic partner during the transition to adulthood (Arnett, 2000).
However, emerging adults are getting married later (Cherlin,
2010), with the median age at first marriage occurring at age
29.5 for men and 27.4 for women (U.S. Census Bureau,
2016). Despite 76% of teens report wanting to marry in the
future (Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2007), emerging
adults often highlight many barriers to marriage like financial
insecurity or unrealistic standards or expectations for marriage
(e.g., Finkel, Hui, Carswell, & Larson, 2015; Smock, Manning,
& Porter, 2005), suggesting that they may remain in long-term
cohabitations. However, emerging adults might still be preparing for marriage in these long-term cohabitations. When emerging adults expected to marry earlier, or had an earlier “marital
horizon,” they altered their behavior in preparation for marriage (Carroll et al., 2007; Willoughby & Carroll, 2015).
Because developmental milestones met off-time, such as
unions occurring much later in the life course, are theorized
to be associated with health problems and risky behavior (Erikson, 1968), emerging adults’ expectations that they will soon
marry may reduce distress.
Trends in emerging adult union formation, such as the delay
in first marriage and the growing prevalence of cohabitation
(Cherlin, 2010), may be shaped by external barriers to
Emerging Adulthood
marriage—such as the disparity in access to marriage or difficulty reconciling competing developmental tasks. Today’s
emerging adults face greater difficulty finding employment,
even if they have a college degree (Settersten & Ray, 2010),
and these economic barriers may make marriage but not cohabitation, less attainable for many emerging adults. Qualitative
work finds evidence of “long-term engagements” among the
economically disadvantaged, whereby cohabitors are engaged
but have no formal plans to marry. Many highlight economic
or social barriers, such as lack of desired employment or
inability to afford a wedding, as the reasons they do not formally marry (Edin, 2000).
Other scholars have suggested that competing needs for
emerging adults, specifically employment and marriage/family
needs, delay marriage (Shulman & Connolly, 2013, 2015; Willoughby & Carroll, 2015). These barriers to marriage contribute to a new transitional emerging adult romantic relationship
stage whereby emerging adults reconcile their employment and
marriage/family needs in the context of economic and family
formation uncertainty (Shulman & Connolly, 2013, 2015).
Even though emerging adults are capable of establishing highly
intimate relationships, the difficulty reconciling their desire for
a long-term relationship with their own, and their partner’s, life
plans makes marriage in emerging adulthood unattainable for
many (Shulman & Connolly, 2013, 2015). The postponement
of marriage is a conscious response to these barriers. For these
emerging adults, long-term cohabitation may become a viable
way to reconcile these conflicting developmental tasks, especially for those facing greater social and economic barriers to
marriage, leading to decreased distress.
Cohabitation and Mental Health
The mental health implications of entering into a cohabiting
union are unclear. In the past, studies relying on data from the
National Survey of Families and Households found that individuals in a cohabiting union reported greater depressive symptoms than those that married (Brown, 2000 [1987–1988 wave
only]; Kim & McKenry, 2002 [1987–1988 and 1992–1993
waves]), but these associations have not been found among
contemporary emerging adults. Using data from emerging
adults in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to
Adult Health, cohabitors reported similar levels of depressive
symptoms, but a higher frequency of drunkenness, than marrieds (Uecker, 2012). In the National Longitudinal Survey of
Youth 1979 cohort, Duncan, Wilkerson, and England (2006)
found that cohabiting emerging adults had less pronounced
reductions in binge drinking than married emerging adults.
When compared to single or unpartnered individuals, cohabitation in the past was not associated with emotional health, measured by depressive symptoms (Kim & McKenry, 2002; Lamb
et al., 2003); more recent evidence from a community sample
suggests that cohabitation was associated with decreased heavy
drinking compared to being single (Fleming et al., 2010).
Taken together, these findings provide mixed evidence for any
observed emotional health benefits from cohabitation and
Mernitz
evidence of slight reductions in problem drinking from cohabitation compared to being single.
Yet, much of this past research relied on comparing cohabiting individuals with either single or married emerging adults.
Because cohabitation is overrepresented among the socioeconomically disadvantaged (Lichter & Qian, 2008) and those
with a history of poor internalizing and externalizing distress
(Sandberg-Thoma & Kamp Dush, 2014), failure to account for
preexisting differences may bias results. When accounting for
preexisting differences, transitioning from being single or
unpartnered into cohabitation was associated with increased
global happiness for participants in the National Survey of
Families and Household 1987–1988 and 1992–1993 waves
(Musick & Bumpass, 2012). Among emerging adults in the
NLSY97 cohort, transitioning from being single into cohabitation was associated with less internalized distress, and transitioning from cohabitation into marriage was not associated
with any additional improvement (Mernitz & Dush, 2016).
Emerging adults who entered into cohabitation from being single reduced their heavy drinking, although these reductions
were less pronounced than they were for those who entered
directly into marriage (Fleming et al., 2010). Overall, after
accounting for preexisting characteristics, these findings suggest that contemporary emerging adult cohabitation provides
mental health benefits that may be comparable to marriage
benefits.
Scholars have used the marital resource model to explain
observed mental health benefits and lack of distress from marriage (Umberson, Thomeer, & Williams, 2013). This model
suggests that marriage provides many additional benefits that
improve mental health from greater socioeconomic resources
(Marcussen, 2005) to greater support networks (Frech & Williams, 2007). Long-term cohabitation might mirror marriage
in providing many of these benefits, contributing to less distress for cohabitors. Unlike short-term cohabitors, long-term
emerging adult cohabitors may have received these benefits for
several years. Emerging adults report moving in together to
reduce the cost of living (Huang, Smock, Manning, &
Bergstrom-Lynch, 2011; Sassler, 2004) and may pool other
economic resources.
Further, long-term cohabitors may have access to a broader
network of family and/or friends and may become more
enmeshed with this network over time. Because greater support
networks have been linked to better subjective well-being,
especially when these support networks consisted of highquality social relationships (Saphire-Bernstein & Taylor,
2013), long-term cohabitors might experience less distress the
longer they are in their union. Long-term cohabitors might also
experience less distress because their romantic partner is able
to provide support for a longer duration. Emerging adults in
high-quality relationships, where support provision is likely
to be high, had higher levels of happiness, regardless of
whether they were experiencing conflict in a close friendship
(Demir, 2010). These findings suggest that romantic partners
become more critical for support provision in emerging adulthood than they were in adolescence. Given the associations
3
between support provision and romantic relationships, I expect
that time spent in a long-term cohabitation compared to time
spent single, and remaining in a cohabitation long-term, will
be associated with reduced distress.
Gender Differences in Associations Between Cohabitation
and Mental Health
Although gender differences in associations between cohabitation and mental health have received some attention, findings
are mixed. Indeed, no significant gender differences were
observed in associations between emotional health and cohabitation (Blekesaune, 2008; Uecker, 2012). However, using a
contemporary sample of emerging adults, women received
emotional health benefits from transitioning into a first cohabitation from being single, whereas men did not receive any emotional health benefit (Mernitz & Dush, 2016). Women also
have greater networks of close relationships, which are linked
to increased subjective well-being (Saphire-Bernstein & Taylor, 2013). Drawing from evolutionary theory, Taylor and colleagues (2000) proposed that women have learned to develop
and maintain these close relationships over time in response
to stress, termed the tend-and-befriend hypothesis. The hypothesis states that, unlike the fight or flight response to stress,
women who were primarily responsible for child-rearing
sought out social networks that helped keep them (and their
children) safe. Thus, women are more likely to provide and
receive support, both of which are associated with greater mental and physical health benefits (Taylor, 2011).
Many of these discrepancies in the literature may be due to
the way researchers conceptualize and operationalize mental
health. Internalizing indicators of distress, such as emotional
distress, were more accurate at evaluating women’s mental
health, whereas externalizing indicators of distress, such as
alcohol misuse/abuse, were more accurate at evaluating men’s
mental health (Simon, 2002). Men were also more likely to
underreport indicators of emotional distress on self-reported
scales compared to women (Sigmon et al., 2005) and the prevalence rates for internalized and externalized distress differ
by gender. Using data from the World Health Organization
World Mental Health Surveys, Seedat et al. (2009) found that
women were significantly more likely to develop mood and
anxiety disorders (odds ratios ranged from 1.3 to 2.6), and men
were significantly more likely to develop substance use disorders (odds ratios ranged from 0.2 to 0.4) worldwide. In studies
where both internalizing and externalizing sources of distress
were examined, cohabitation was unrelated to depressive
symptoms for both genders but associated with more pronounced alcohol misuse among men (Horwitz & White,
1998; Marcussen, 2005). Yet, among emerging adults, both
cohabiting men and women reported greater alcohol use than
married men and women, although these associations were
more pronounced for women (Uecker, 2012). Given these
mixed findings, I expect to see no significant gender differences in associations between long-term cohabitation and mental health.
4
Emerging Adulthood
Confounding Variables
Unaccounted heterogeneity associated with both mental health
and cohabitation likely poses a threat to the current study’s
validity; thus, I control for several potential sources of bias.
Because I examined within-person change in mental health,
only time-varying sources are the primary threats to validity.
Cohabiting unions were more common among those who are
disadvantaged—for instance, emerging adults with lower educational attainment or those who were unemployed (Lichter,
Turner, & Sassler, 2010). Further, cohabiting couples with children report poorer mental health than those without children
(Brown, 2000). As these factors change over time, I control for
these sources of bias.
Current Study
I used longitudinal data from the NLSY97 to (1) examine
within-person change in mental health from entrance into a first
long-term cohabitation compared to time spent single (i.e.,
never reporting any union), (2) examine within-person change
in mental health from entrance into a first long-term cohabitation above and beyond any benefits gained from a short-term
cohabitation, and (3) examine and test for possible gender differences in all associations. Based on the aims of this study, I
propose the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: Compared to time spent single, time spent in
a first long-term cohabitation will be associated with less
internalizing and externalizing distress, measured as emotional distress and heavy episodic drinking.
Hypothesis 2: Transitioning from time spent in a short-term
first cohabitation to a long-term first cohabitation will be
associated with less internalizing and externalizing distress.
Hypothesis 3: There will be no observed gender differences
in the association between transitioning into a long-term
cohabitation and mental health.
Method
Sample
I used data from the NLSY97 (n ¼ 8,984), designed to examine
the family formation patterns, employment and educational
experiences, and family backgrounds of youth born in the
United States between 1980 and 1984. Data were collected
annually from 1997 to 2011 and in 2013. These data are nationally representative; youth were selected from over 90,000 housing units within the continental United States and the District of
Columbia. All civilian, noninstitutionalized youth were eligible
to participant as long as they were between ages 12 and
16 before December 31, 1996, and living in the selected
households. More detailed descriptions of available measures,
procedures, and instruments are available online (https://
www.nlsinfo.org/content/cohorts/nlsy97). The current study
used data from the 2000 to 2010 survey years as emotional distress, the main indicator of internalized distress, was only
available biennially during those years; respondents were
between ages 15 and 19 at the 2000 survey year and ages 25
to 29 at the 2010 survey year. Out of an initial sample of n ¼
8,984 participants, I restricted the sample to those that reported
a first cohabitation on, or after, the 2000 survey year (n ¼
4,796) because emotional distress was first measured in
2000. One hundred and sixty-eight respondents reported a first
cohabitation prior to the 2000 survey year and were not
included in any analyses. The sample was further restricted
to those that cohabited after age 18 and reported a long-term
cohabitation lasting longer than 3 years (n ¼ 2,131); respondents who reported a short-term cohabitation only (n ¼
2,262) were not included.1
Missing data were imputed using multiple imputation using
chained equations (MICE; 20% data missing). In MICE, each
variable acted as the dependent variable, and all other variables
were regressed onto it (Johnson & Young, 2011); for instance,
all dichotomous variables were imputed using logistic regression. I employed the multiple imputation and then deletion
technique where the dependent variable was imputed in order
to inform other values, but was not included in the final analyses (von Hippel, 2007). Thus, the sample size was still reduced
for those missing information on their dependent variable (see
Online Supplementary File 1 for sample restrictions for each
analytic model).
Measures
Long-term cohabitation. Long-term cohabitations were measured
using data from individual cohabitation histories, which contained changes in cohabitation every survey year (Center for
Human Resources, 2013). Respondents reported the start and
end dates for each cohabiting union.Out of all cohabitations,
first cohabitations were most common (73%); thus, only these
unions were included in the analyses. Duration was captured
from the date the first cohabitation began until respondents
transitioned out of their cohabitation (via marriage or dissolution) or until the 2010 interview date if no transition occurred.
Long-term cohabitations were classified by using the average
duration; any cohabitations lasting more than 3 years were considered long-term. Out of all emerging adults in the NLSY97,
25% were classified as long-term cohabitors.
For the models examining within-person change in mental
health from transitions from single (nonunion state) to longterm cohabitation, individuals were given a “0” during their
single years (before a first cohabitation) and “1” during the
years of long-term cohabitation. Periods of short-term cohabitation, after first cohabitation dissolution or transition into marriage, and any higher order cohabitation, defined as two or
more cohabitation periods, were coded as missing. Thus, models examined the average mental health scores from when a
respondent was single and compared these scores to the average mental health scores once they entered into a long-term
cohabitation.
For the models examining within-person change in mental
health from transitions from a short-term to long-term
Mernitz
cohabitation, individuals were given a “0” each year they were
in a short-term cohabitation (defined as a cohabiting union lasting 3 years or less). Respondents were given a “1” each year
they were in a long-term cohabitation. Each year a respondent
was single, postdissolution, or cohabiting with higher order
partners was coded missing. Models compared the average
mental health scores from when respondents were in a shortterm cohabitation to the average mental health scores from
when respondents were in a long-term cohabitation.
Mental health problems. Internalizing and externalizing distress
were used to indicate mental health problems. The indicator
of internalizing distress, emotional distress, was measured
by the 5-item Mental Health Inventory 5 (MHI-5;Veit &
Ware, 1983) at the 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010
survey years. The MHI-5 is a valid indicator of depression and
anxiety for both adolescents and young adults (Berwick et al.,
1991; Ostroff, Woolverton, Berry, & Lesko, 1996) and is
measured based on the occurrence of the following symptoms
on a scale of 1–4, where 1 ¼ all of the time and 4 ¼ none of the
time. “How much of the time during the last month have you”
(1) “been a very nervous person?” (2) “felt calm and peaceful?” (3) “felt downhearted and blue?” (4) “been a happy
person?” and (5) “felt so down in the dumps that nothing
could cheer you up?” Responses to Questions 1, 3, and 5 were
reverse coded and totaled, with higher values indicating
greater emotional distress. Scale reliabilities ranged from
a ¼ .77 to .82 each survey year.
Heavy episodic drinking was used as an indicator of externalizing distress and was measured at each survey year (2000–
2010). Participants answered the question “On how many days
did you have five or more drinks on the same occasion during
the past 30 days?” The same occasion was defined as drinking
5þ drinks at the same time or within hours of each other. Given
that many respondents reported 0 days where they drank at
least 5þ drinks in the same occasion, this measure was dichotomized where 0 ¼ never and 1 ¼ heavy episodic drinking
occurred. In primary care screening tests, this measure was
shown to accurately identify harmful drinking patterns and
alcohol abuse/dependence (Bush, Kivlahan, McDonell, Fihn,
& Bradley, 1998). Thus, this measure likely differentiated
between experimental and problem drinking among youth in
the existing study.
Gender. Gender was measured as a dichotomous indicator
where 1 ¼ female and 0 ¼ male.
Controls. I controlled for time-varying, dichotomous indicators
of education, employment status, biological children, pregnancy, and current enrollment. Education was coded as an indicator of highest educational attainment and coded into four
response categories: less than high school degree, high school
degree (reference category), some college, or college degree
and more than a college degree. Employment was coded from
the employment status history file and was coded into three
response categories: full-time employment (more than 35 hr
5
worked a week for at least 50 weeks), part-time employment
(working less than 35 hr a week for less than 50 weeks), and
not employed (reported working no hours). Biological children
were coded as whether or not the respondent (or respondent’s
partner) reported having given birth during the survey year.
Pregnancy was coded as whether or not a respondent (or
respondent’s partner) reported becoming pregnant during the
survey year. Current enrollment was coded as whether or not
the respondent was enrolled in any schooling. Additionally, I
controlled for temporal variation in mental health by including
yearly time dummy variables. These timing effects are represented by interactions between each year and each mental
health outcome (either emotional distress or heavy episodic
drinking).
Analytic Plan
To test all hypotheses, I used the Stata 14 statistical package to
run pooled fixed-effects regression and logistic regression
models (Allison, 1990; Johnson, 2005). Fixed-effects regression and logistic models account for within-individual change
over time, while controlling for all time-invariant sources of
bias (Allison, 1990). To illustrate how I examine change in a
change score framework, I first use the following equation for
emotional distress at Time 1:
Emotional distressi1 ¼ b0 þ b2 Mi þ b3 Ui þ b3 Ti1 þ ei1 ; ð1Þ
where b0 was a fixed constant, bj were the regression coefficients, Mi was a vector of measured time-invariant control variables, Ui was a vector of unmeasured time-invariant control
variables, Ti was a vector of measured time-variant control
variables, and ei was the error term. The equation for Time 2
looks similar, except this equation would include the regression
coefficient for the event Xi (i.e., long-term cohabitation).
Because any observed cohabitation does not occur prior to
Time 1, it does not appear in the first equation.
Emotional distressi2 ¼ b0 þ b1 Xi þ b2 Mi þ b3 Ui þ b3 Ti2 þ ei1 :
ð2Þ
The two equations were differenced in the following model
to produce the change score model for the continuous variable
emotional distress:
ðEmotional distressi2 Emotional distressi1 Þ
¼ ðb0 b0 Þ þ b1 Xi þ ðb2 Mi b2 Mi Þ
þ ðb3 Ui b3 Ui Þ þ ðb4 Ti2 b4 Ti1 Þ þ ðei2 ei1 Þ:
ð3Þ
All time-invariant coefficients (Mi, Ui, and b0) were differenced out of the equation, which reduced the equation to the
following:
ðEmotional distressi2 Emotional distressi1 Þ
¼ b1 Xi þ b4 T 0i þ e0i :
ð4Þ
For logistic regression models predicting heavy episodic
drinking, the dependent variable is measured as the probability
that heavy episodic drinking occurred for an individual at each
6
Emerging Adulthood
time point. In these instances, the final equation would be:
LogðPðHeavy episodic drinkingit Þ=1
LogðPðHeavy episodic drinkingit Þ ¼ b1 Xi þ b4 T 0i þ e0i ;
ð5Þ
where P is the probability of heavy episodic drinking, i represents the individual, and t represents the time point. The
remaining equation is interpreted similarly to the regression
Equation 4.
Thus, in all of my fixed-effects regression models, I controlled for time-invariant sources of heterogeneity, regardless
of whether they were observed or unobserved. In these models,
certain variables that account for selection bias, such as family
background characteristics, are controlled by the model design.
Because I had observations from more than two time points, I
use a pooled fixed-effects regression model and a conditional
logistic regression model, which interprets an individual’s outcome as a deviation away from the mean at each point in time.
Emerging adults who remain in a long-term cohabitation might
differ from other emerging adults who enter into other unions
(i.e., direct marriage or short-term cohabitation). Comparisons
between other unions and long-term cohabitors may find a significant mental health effect that is due to selection. For
instance, if married emerging adults reported less distress than
long-term cohabitors, it might be that those who entered into
direct marriage have less distress overall and not due to marriage. By using modeling that compares long-term cohabitors
with themselves, the effect of long-term cohabitation on mental
health is likely to be due to the union itself.
For Hypothesis 1, that long-term cohabitation will be associated with better mental health compared to time spent single,
I conducted several pooled fixed-effects regression and logistic
regression models. I examined change in an individual’s emotional distress from models comparing an individual’s emotional health when single (defined as never reporting a union)
with his or her emotional health when in a long-term cohabitation (defined as a cohabiting union with an above average duration). I repeated these analyses using fixed-effects logistic
regression with the externalizing mental health outcome, heavy
episodic drinking.
For Hypothesis 2, that time spent in a long-term cohabitation will be associated with better mental health compared to
time spent in a short-term cohabitation, I conducted pooled
fixed-effects regression and logistic regression models. I analyzed within-person change in emotional distress from models
comparing an individual’s emotional distress during their time
in a short-term cohabitation and emotional distress during time
spent in a long-term cohabitation. Again, I repeated these analyses using fixed-effects logistic regression when predicting the
externalizing indicator of distress, heavy episodic drinking.
For Hypothesis 3, that there will be no observed gender differences in mental health between time spent single or in a
short-term cohabitation and time spent in a long-term cohabitation, I analyzed all models discussed for Hypotheses 1 and 2
separately by gender. Additionally, I calculated Wald’s test
statistics based on the procedures outlined in Clogg, Petkova,
and Haritou (1995) to compare group differences between men
and women. I used the following equation:
z ¼ ðbx by Þ=½s2 ðbx Þ þ s2 ðby Þ1=2 ;
ð6Þ
where bx is the coefficient for Group 1 (i.e., women), by is the
coefficient for Group 2 (i.e., men), and s is the standard error
for each coefficient. This equation produces a z statistic, which
can be used to find the p value for each test.
Results
Descriptive Statistics
Weighted descriptive statistics are presented in Table 1;
weighting descriptive statistics ensures that the results are representative of the population. Because the NLSY97 oversamples certain respondents (i.e., Hispanic respondents), failure
to weight the data results in the decreased ability to generalize
to the population. Descriptive statistics for all long-term cohabitations (averaged around 7 years) indicated that individuals
were predominately White, employed full-time, and received
a high school degree. Most were not currently enrolled in
school. The average age was around 24, and both genders were
represented about equally. Few respondents had a child or a
pregnancy, high levels of emotional distress, or reported heavy
episodic drinking. Descriptive statistics were comparable by
gender, yet there were statistically significant gender differences. Women reported more emotional distress than men
(means of 9.87 and 9.37, respectively) whereas men reported
more episodic drinking than women (48% vs. 34%). Women
were more likely than men to be employed part-time (30%
vs. 18%) and less likely to be employed full-time (59% vs.
70%); women were also significantly more educated (15%
received at least a college education, 65% received a high
school degree, and 16% reported less than a high school
degree) and more likely to be enrolled in school (22% enrolled)
than men (only 8% of men had a least a college education, 68%
had a high school degree, and 20% had less than a high school
degree; only 12% were currently enrolled). Lastly, women
were younger (23.83 vs. 24.20), less likely to be Hispanic
(14% vs. 16%), and more likely to have a child (9% vs. 8%)
or report a pregnancy (9% vs. 6%). There were no significant
differences in the length of long-term cohabitation (women’s
cohabitations lasted on average 7.04 years whereas men’s
cohabitations lasted on average 7.10 years).
Fixed-Effects Regression Models
Pooled-fixed effects regression models partially supported my
first hypothesis that, compared to time spent single, time spent
in a first long-term cohabitation will be associated with better
mental health (see Tables 2 and 3, Model 1). Emotional distress
was greater during time spent in a long-term cohabitation than
during time spent single (not supporting Hypothesis 1). However, heavy episodic drinking rates were lower during time
spent in a long-term cohabitation than they were during time
Mernitz
7
Table 1. Weighted Descriptive Statistics for All Long-Term Cohabitors and by Gender.
Full Sample
Variables
%
Cohabitation duration (Years)
Mental health
Emotional distress
Heavy episodic drinking
41
Controls
Employment status
Not employed
11
Part-time employment
24
Full-time employment
64
Education
Less than high school
18
High school
67
Some college
4
College or more
12
Current enrollment
17
Age
Female
51
Race
White
62
Black
19
Hispanic
15
Had a child
9
Pregnancy
8
n
2,131
Women
M (SD)
Range
7.07 (2.30)
4–11
9.63 (2.52)
5–20
24.01 (2.81)
%
Men
M (SD)
Range
7.04 (2.31)
4–11
9.87 (2.46)a
5–19
%
a
34
48
11
30a
59a
12
18
70
16a
65a
4
15a
22a
20
68
4
8
12
23.83 (2.84)a
18–30
18–30
—
—
62
20a
14a
9a
9a
1,095
62
18
16
8
6
1,036
M (SD)
Range
7.10 (2.29)
4–11
9.37 (2.55)
5–20
24.20 (2.77)
18–30
Note. M ¼ mean. SD ¼ standard deviation.
a
Significant gender difference.
spent single (supporting Hypothesis 1). Inconsistent with my
second hypothesis that, compared to time spent in a shortterm cohabitation, time spent in a long-term cohabitation will
be associated with better mental health, there were no significant changes in mental health between time spent in a shortterm and time spent in a long-term cohabitation (see Tables 2
and 3, Model 2).
Fixed-Effects Regression Models by Gender
I hypothesized that there would be no observed gender differences in associations between long-term cohabitations and
mental health; pooled fixed-effects regression models did not
support this conclusion overall (see Tables 4 and 5). For men,
emotional distress was greater during time spent in a long-term
cohabitation than it was for time spent single (b ¼ .42, p <
.001); for women, emotional distress during time spent single
was not significantly different from emotional distress during
time spent in a long-term cohabitation. A Wald’s test confirmed this gender difference (z ¼ 5.37; p < .01). Average emotional distress scores during time spent in a long-term
cohabitation did not significantly differ from average emotional health scores during time spent in a short-term cohabitation for either gender. A Wald’s test confirmed that there were
no gender differences (z ¼ 0.03; p > .10).
When predicting change in heavy episodic drinking, women
had less average heavy episodic drinking during their time
spent in a long-term cohabitation than they had during their
time spent single (b ¼ .54, p < .01); for men, this association
was only marginally significant (b ¼ .34, p ¼ .07). A Wald’s
test suggested that there were no significant gender differences
(z ¼ 0.53; p > .10). Average heavy episodic drinking scores
during time spent in a short-term cohabitation and time spent
in a long-term cohabitation were not significantly different
from each other for either gender. A Wald’s test was also nonsignificant, suggesting that there were no gender differences (z
¼ 0.11; p > .10).
Long-Term Cohabitation Defined as a Standard
Deviation Above the Mean
Prior studies on long-term cohabitation defined these unions as
cohabitations lasting longer than 3 years (Willetts, 2006) or 4
years (Skinner et al., 2002); these definitions were used
because cohabitations needed to occur at both waves of available National Survey of Families and Households data.
Although the length of those long-term cohabitations is comparable to the average length in the current study, I also measured
long-term cohabitation defined as a standard deviation above
the mean. In these instances, long-term cohabitors were classified as cohabitations lasting for at least 6 years (13% of all
cohabitations were classified as long-term;n ¼ 1,205). Many
of the findings were not replicated with this new definition of
long-term cohabitation. For the full model, emotional distress
8
Emerging Adulthood
Table 2. Pooled Fixed-Effects Regression Predicting Change in
Emotional Distress From Long-Term Cohabitation.
Variables
Long-term cohabitation
Long-term cohabitation versus
single
Long-term cohabitation versus
short-term
Controls
Education (ref: high school)
Less than high school
Some college
College
Employment (ref: part-time)
Not employed
Full-time
Had a child
Pregnancy
Current enrollment
Year Emotional Distressc
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
Person-yearsd
n
Table 3. Pooled Fixed-Effects Logistic Regression Predicting Change
in Heavy Episodic Drinking From Long-Term Cohabitation.
Model 1a
Model 2b
B
SE B
B
SE B
.20*
.09
—
—
—
—
.02
.06
.11
.08
.02
.07
.13
.10
.22*
.13
.08
.10
.15
.12
.06
.01
.04
.10
.05
.06
.05
.07
.07
.05
.01
.02
.01
.01
.17
.08
.05
.06
.06
.06
.07
.07
.13
.08
.38*** .08
.47*** .09
.62*** .10
.66*** .11
.45*** .12
.44*** .12
.59*** .12
.61*** .12
12,423
2,098
.04
.13
.01
.12
.45**
.12
.43**
.13
.60*** .13
.59*** .13
.38*
.14
.38*
.14
.54*** .15
.53*** .15
11,918
2,090
Note. aModel 1 compared the emotional distress from an individual’s time spent
single (not in a union) to time spent in a first long-term cohabitation. bMode1 2
compared the emotional distress from an individual’s time spent in a shortterm cohabitation to time spent in a long-term cohabitation. cInteractions
between each year and emotional distress control for temporal variation in distress. dPerson-years estimated how much time each participant contributed to
the study.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
became significantly lower during the time spent in a long-term
cohabitation compared to emotional distress when single (b ¼
.33, p < .001); heavy episodic drinking was no longer significant when time spent in a long-term cohabitation was compared to time spent single (b ¼ .29, p ¼ .11). By gender,
emotional distress scores were no longer significant for men
in models comparing time spent in long-term cohabitation versus time-spent single (b ¼ .16, p ¼ .28); for women, emotional distress scores became significant in that time spent in
long-term cohabitation was associated with less emotional
distress than time spent single (b ¼ .53, p < .001). Wald’s
tests indicated that there were gender differences in these associations (z ¼ 3.04, p < .01). For women, time spent in long-term
cohabitation was no longer significantly associated with heavy
episodic drinking compared to time spent single (b ¼ .27, p ¼
.27); findings for men for this association were also not
Variables
Long-term cohabitations
Long-term cohabitation versus
single
Long-term cohabitation versus
short-term
Controls
Education (ref: high school)
Less than high school
Some college
College
Employment (ref: part-time)
Not employed
Full-time
Had a child
Pregnancy
Current enrollment
Year Heavy Episodic Drinkingc
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
Person-yearsd
n
Model 1a
Model 2b
B
SE B
B
SE B
0.46***
.14
—
—
—
—
.02
.09
0.36**
0.15
0.22
.11
.22
.16
.19
.11
.06
.20
.28
.23
0.02
0.21**
0.46***
0.56***
0.12
.11
.07
.13
.12
.09
.23
.24**
.32***
.65***
.17
.13
.08
.10
.11
.10
0.34***
0.50***
0.82***
0.77***
0.99***
0.99***
1.12***
0.90***
0.91***
0.79***
7,436
1,198
.10
.12
.13
.14
.15
.17
.19
.19
.19
.20
.14
.10
.11
.24
.31
.37
.44
.26
.29
.13
6,469
1,107
.20
.20
.20
.21
.21
.22
.23
.24
.25
.26
Note. aModel 1 compared heavy episodic drinking from an individual’s time
spent single (not in a union) to time spent in a first long-term cohabitation.
b
Mode1 2 compared heavy episodic drinking from an individual’s time spent
in a short-term cohabitation to time spent in a long-term cohabitation. cInteractions between each year and heavy episodic drinking control for temporal
variation in distress. dPerson-years estimated how much time each participant
contributed to the study.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
significant, but the coefficient became positive (b ¼ .31, p ¼
.24). Wald’s tests confirmed there were no gender differences
(z ¼ 0.02, p > .01). By gender, all associations between mental
health and long-term cohabitation (compared to short-term
cohabitation) were replicated.
Discussion
Emerging adult cohabitation has changed rapidly in prevalence
and stability over time (Cherlin, 2010). While serial cohabitation, or cohabitation with more than two partners over time, has
received scholarly attention (e.g., Lichter & Qian, 2008), the
other end of the spectrum—long-term cohabitation—has
received little attention. The prevalence of long-term cohabitation in emerging adulthood remains unknown, yet these unions
Mernitz
9
Table 4. Pooled Fixed-Effects Regression Predicting Change in Emotional Distress From Long-Term Cohabitation by Gender.
Model 1a
Variables
Long-term cohabitations
Single versus long-term cohabitation
Short versus long-term cohabitation
Education (ref: high school)
Less than high school
Some college
College
Employment (ref: part-time)
Not employed
Full-time
Had a child
Pregnancy
Current enrollment
Year Emotional Distressc
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
Person-yearsd
n
Model 2b
Female
Male
Female
Male
B (SE)
B (SE)
B (SE)
B(SE)
.01 (.12)
—
.42*** (.13)
—
—
.03 (.08)
—
.01 (.08)
.13 (.10)
.20 (.17)
.03 (.12)
.08 (.10)
.15 (.21)
.04 (.17)
.01 (.15)
.23 (.18)
.12 (.14)
.39** (.14)
.06 (.26)
.02 (.23)
.09 (.09)
.05 (.06)
.05 (.10)
.03 (.09)
.02 (.07)
.02 (.10)
.03 (.07)
.01 (.12)
.19 (.11)
.13 (.08)
.06 (.09)
.05 (.06)
.09 (.07)
.02 (.08)
.15* (.08)
.09 (.11)
.11 (.08)
.14 (.09)
.03 (.10)
.19 (.11)
.08 (.10)
.03 (.11)
.48*** (.12)
.56*** (.13)
.72*** (.13)
.73*** (.15)
.49** (.16)
.46** (.17)
.71*** (.16)
.76*** (.17)
6,389
1,081
.22* (.10)
.29** (.11)
.29* (.12)
.38** (.13)
.54*** (.14)
.62*** (.15)
.45** (.17)
.47** (.17)
.53** (.17)
.52** (.18)
6,034
1,017
.05 (.16)
.11 (.16)
.15 (.16)
.18 (.16)
.41* (.17)
.38* (.17)
.11 (.18)
.09 (.19)
.35 (.19)
.35 (.20)
6,330
1,082
.04 (.20)
.17 (.19)
.83*** (.19)
.77*** (.19)
.86*** (.20)
.85*** (.20)
.71*** (.21)
.73*** (.22)
.80*** (.23)
.77*** (.23)
5,588
1,008
Note. aModel 1 compared heavy episodic drinking from time spent single (not in a union) to time spent in a first long-term cohabitation. bMode1 2 compared heavy
episodic drinking from time spent in a short-term cohabitation to time spent in a long-term cohabitation. cInteractions between each year and emotional distress
control for temporal variation in distress. dPerson-years estimated how much time each participant contributed to the study.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
may be an alternative to marriage for many youth, especially
youth facing economic and social barriers to marriage. These
long-term unions may represent an attainable way to develop
intimacy in romantic relationships, meeting a key developmental task (Arnett, 2000), at a time when marriage may be unattainable (Finkel et al., 2015). Consistent with my first
hypothesis, average heavy episodic drinking rates were lower
during a first long-term cohabitation than they were during
time spent single. However, inconsistent with my first hypothesis, the average emotional distress scores were higher during
time spent in a long-term cohabitation than they were during
time spent single. According to rational-choice theorists, coresidence, such as cohabitation, increases an individual’s ability
to monitor a partner’s behavior and vice versa (Friedman,
1995; Willis, 2006). Thus, long-term cohabitors may decrease
their heavy episodic drinking because their partner is monitoring their behavior and may end the relationship if they do not
decrease their drinking. As emotional distress may be less obvious to a partner—for instance, an individual can more easily
identify when their partner is drunk rather than anxious, emotional distress may not be as noticeable to romantic partners.
The higher rates of emotional distress during periods of
long-term cohabitation may be due to testing the relationship.
Approximately 60% of emerging adults report entering into
cohabitation as a way to test their relationship (Stanley
et al., 2011) and assess partner compatibility (Huang et al.,
2011). Thus, these emerging adults may not be sure about the
future of their relationship, and this long-term uncertainty
may contribute to emotional distress over time. Contrarily,
emotional health and well-being decline with union duration
(Musick & Bumpass, 2012) and the observed emotional
health decline may be due to the length of the union rather
than cohabitation itself. Mernitz and Dush (2016) found that
emerging adult first cohabitation was associated with emotional health benefits and that transitioning into marriage
from cohabitation with the same partner was not associated
with additional benefits. Thus, there is some evidence from
emerging adult samples that emotional health may decline
over time, regardless of union type.
An alternative explanation for higher rates of emotional distress may be due to investment in these long-term cohabitations. The investment model (Rusbult, 1980) applied to
10
Emerging Adulthood
Table 5. Pooled Fixed-Effects Logistic Regression Predicting Change in Heavy Episodic Drinking From Long-Term Cohabitation by Gender.
Model 1a
Variables
Long-term cohabitations
Single versus long-term cohabitation
Short versus long-term cohabitation
Education (ref: high school)
Less than high school
Some college
College
Employment (ref: part-time)
Not employed
Full-time
Had a child
Pregnancy
Current enrollment
Year Heavy Episodic Drinkingc
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
Person-yearsd
n
Model 2b
Female
Male
Female
Male
B (SE)
B (SE)
B (SE)
B (SE)
0.54** (0.20)
—
0.34 (.19)
—
—
0.02 (.13)
—
.04 (.13)
0.59*** (0.17)
0.14 (0.30)
0.02 (0.20)
0.15 (.16)
0.19 (.34)
0.64* (.29)
0.53 (.32)
0.02 (.34)
0.02 (.28)
.80** (.30)
.45 (.51)
.14 (.40)
(.15)
(.11)
(.18)
(.15)
(.12)
0.12 (.19)
0.32** (.11)
0.56*** (.15)
1.26*** (.17)
0.21 (.14)
.35 (.19)
.11 (.12)
.12 (.14)
.14 (.15)
.13 (.17)
0.35* (.14)
0.54*** (.16)
0.93*** (.18)
0.74*** (.19)
1.04*** (.21)
0.98*** (.23)
0.89*** (.26)
0.70** (.26)
0.72** (.27)
0.56* (.27)
3,823
618
0.07 (.29)
0.12 (.28)
0.08 (.28)
0.08 (.30)
0.10 (.30)
0.20 (.32)
0.31 (.33)
0.19 (.35)
0.18 (.36)
0.06 (.38)
3,425
571
.35 (.30)
.33 (.29)
.09 (.29)
.36 (.30)
.50 (.31)
.48 (.32)
.52 (.33)
.28 (.34)
.34 (.36)
.16 (.38)
3,044
536
0.01
0.11
0.61***
1.06***
0.09
(0.16)
(0.10)
(0.19)
(0.19)
(0.12)
0.29 (0.16)
0.38* (0.18)
0.62*** (0.19)
0.77*** (0.20)
0.87*** (0.22)
0.90*** (0.25)
1.26*** (0.27)
1.02*** (0.28)
1.06*** (0.28)
0.97*** (0.29)
3,613
580
0.03
0.28**
0.36*
0.18
0.35**
Note. aModel 1 compared heavy episodic drinking from time spent single (not in a union) to time spent in a first long-term cohabitation. bMode1 2 compared heavy
episodic drinking from time spent in a short-term cohabitation to time spent in a long-term cohabitation. cInteractions between each year and heavy episodic
drinking control for temporal variation in distress. dPerson-years estimated how much time each participant contributed to the study.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
romantic relationships suggests that commitment to a relationship is derived from relationship satisfaction, lack of alternative partners, and relationship investment (Rusbult, Agnew,
& Arriaga, 2011). Although relationship satisfaction is most
strongly associated with commitment, each component has
an additive effect (Le & Agnew, 2003), and satisfaction alone
is not the strongest predictor of relationship dissolution (Le,
Dove, Agnew, Korn, & Mutso, 2010). Relationship investments can be intangible (i.e., relationship effort) or tangible
(i.e., material possessions like shared furniture) and consist
of both investments in the past and expectations of future
investments; all intangible investments and future tangible
investments were predictive of commitment (Goodfriend &
Agnew, 2008). Long-term cohabitors have likely accrued many
investments in their relationships, including plans for future
investments (i.e., buying a home together), which may encourage them to remain committed to the relationship and continue
cohabiting. However, they may also be experiencing a decline
in relationship satisfaction, common among long-term relationships, including cohabitation (Brown, 2003; Skinner et al.,
2002), which may contribute to increased emotional distress.
My results for the mental health implications from transitioning into a long-term cohabitation from short-term cohabitation do not suggest that mental health declines over time. I
found that there were no additional reductions in distress from
remaining in cohabitation long-term, yet mental health did not
decline over time either. Identity and intimacy development are
key developmental tasks during the transition to adulthood
(Arnett, 2000; Erikson, 1968), and failure to meet these tasks
is associated with health problems and risky behavior (Erikson,
1968). Cohabitation provides an avenue to establish a romantic
identity and develop intimacy with a romantic partner; thus,
distress may be reduced for all cohabitors. Emerging adults
who enter into a short-term cohabitation are successfully able
to negotiate their personal needs with those of their partner;
however, transitioning into a long-term cohabitation or marriage requires the ability to manage these needs in the context
of economic and social uncertainty (Shulman & Connolly,
2013, 2015). Because the transition from short- to long-term
cohabitation did not reduce distress, it may be that emerging
adults are facing difficulty in other areas in life, specifically
employment. Indeed, employment and romantic identities
Mernitz
become critically important in emerging adulthood (Arnett,
2000), and contemporary emerging adults have faced recent
difficulty finding full-time employment, even among the college educated (Settersten & Ray, 2010). Failure in one domain
(i.e., employment) can lead to negative experiences, which
influence the other domain (i.e., relationships; Edwards &
Rothbard, 2000). Thus, difficulty establishing an employment
and romantic identity, a common occurrence during the emerging adult developmental period (Shulman & Connolly,
2015), might offset any decreased distress from successfully
establishing a romantic identity in the context of long-term
cohabitation.
Gender Differences
There were also significant gender differences in the mental
health implications of long-term cohabitation (inconsistent
with Hypothesis 3). For men, average emotional distress was
greater during time in a long-term cohabitation than it was
when men were single. Past research has suggested that men
were more likely to report cohabiting as a way to test a relationship prior to marrying a partner than women (Stanley et al.,
2011). Thus, the long-term length of these cohabitations might
suggest that men are unsure about the future of their union and
less committed to the relationship. The lack of commitment
may stem from men perceiving better alternatives to their relationship (compared to women who are more invested and satisfied with their relationships; Le & Agnew, 2003). Because
an individual’s level of commitment predicts his or her behavior in the relationship (Rusbult et al., 2011) and relationship
behaviors that help maintain the relationship (i.e., forgiving a
transgression; Rusbult, Hannon, Stocker, & Finkel, 2005) are
associated with reduced emotional distress (Williamson &
Gonzales, 2007), emerging adults in less committed relationships may report greater emotional distress. Men may be especially susceptible to these associations; for instance, less
committed men viewed their partner’s qualities and virtues
more negatively than their partners viewed themselves.
Women, regardless of commitment level, viewed their partners
more positively than their partners viewed themselves (Gagné
& Lydon, 2003). Taken together, the combination of less commitment and negative relationship behaviors over time may
contribute to increased distress for men. Even men highly committed to their cohabiting partner may exhibit increased distress
in their long-term cohabitation because they might desire to get
married to their partner, but be unable to do so. Indeed, studies
have found that financial security is an important precursor to
marriage (Smock et al., 2005), especially among men (Sassler
& Goldscheider, 2004; Schneider, 2011), and the recent Great
Recession experienced by this sample may have contributed to
couples remaining in their cohabitation out of necessity, rather
than desire.
When mental health was measured by heavy episodic drinking, for both genders, heavy episodic drinking rates were lower
during time spent in a long-term cohabitation than they were
during time spent single (although this association was only
11
marginally significant for men, there were no gender differences). Inconsistent with past work, which found that cohabiting women experienced more pronounced declines in problem
drinking (Uecker, 2012), I found evidence that there were no
gender differences in heavy drinking. Scholars have suggested
that emerging adults who plan to marry sooner rather than later
decrease their substance use (Carroll et al., 2007), and it may be
that many emerging adults in these long-term cohabitations
expect to marry soon—or have an earlier marital horizon.
Consistent with past research (i.e., Saphire-Bernstein &
Taylor, 2013), these gender findings broadly provide some support for the notion that women benefit more from their relationships than men. However, these findings also highlight the
importance of examining mental health from multiple domains.
Specifically, long-term cohabitation appears less beneficial for
men’s mental health compared to women’s mental health when
considering internalized distress, but comparable when considering externalized distress. Further, as other studies have
observed gender differences in relationship quality, commitment, and relationship maintenance behaviors (Gagné &
Lydon, 2003; Le & Agnew, 2003; Skinner et al., 2002), understanding how long-term cohabitation is beneficial for mental
health for both genders should consider relationship processes
that likely influence these associations.
Limitations and Future Research
I acknowledge some limitations in the existing study. Emotional health was only measured biennially beginning in the
2000 survey year until the 2010 survey year. Thus, changes
in emotional distress that might occur annually are masked in
the current analyses. Because the data contain monthly cohabitation arrays, a more frequent measure of emotional distress
and heavy episodic drinking would allow me to capture
nuanced changes in health that may be more important for identifying a “honeymoon” effect, whereby unions only provide
short-term health benefits, for long-term cohabitors. Further,
for both emotional health and heavy episodic drinking, participants were asked to indicate their levels of distress in the past
month, which likely varies. Future research containing more
frequent measures of mental health where general levels of distress are assessed may help researchers better understand the
implications of long-term cohabitation for health. An additional limitation is that the data do not contain an indicator for
cohabitation union quality during the survey years (quality was
only measured until 2007). Because quality is associated with
mental health (i.e., Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007), the relationship quality of these long-term unions is likely important
for mental health. For instance, transitioning from short-term
to a long-term cohabitation may provide mental health benefits
if the union is of high quality and contribute to worse mental
health if the union is of low quality. Thus, only the highquality long-term cohabitations may be akin to marriage and
provide the most health benefits. Although quality was
assessed in the NLSY97 during the short-term cohabitation
time points, I do not have the measure available for the full
12
sample of long-term cohabitors during the time spent in longterm cohabitation. Future research should examine these associations accounting for relationship quality.
Lastly, I am unable to distinguish between emerging
adults who are not in any romantic relationship and those
that are in a romantic relationship but not a marriage or
cohabitation. The NLSY97 collected detailed information
about cohabitation and marital status but did not collect
romantic relationship entrance and exit dates for dating relationships. Thus, my category of “single” refers to those not
in a union, which likely masks differences between emerging adults not in any relationship and those in a dating
relationship. Future research could compare an individual’s
mental health when they were in a long-term dating relationship to when they were in a long-term cohabitation.
Relatedly, future research could also examine mental health
differences between first- and higher order long-term cohabitors. There is evidence that emerging adults who enter
into second cohabitations report less distress than when they
were involved in a first cohabitation (Mernitz & Dush,
2016), suggesting that higher order relationships may reduce
distress above and beyond a first relationship. Future work
might also want to focus on the characteristics of emerging
adults that are entering into these long-term cohabitations.
Although the measurement of long-term cohabitation in the
current study is consistent with existing research (Skinner
et al, 2002; Willetts, 2006), those that cohabited for longer
durations (a standard deviation above the average) exhibited
different mental health outcomes. Thus, paying specific
attention to who cohabits at varying durations, and possibly
the relationship processes within these unions, is an important avenue for future research on long-term cohabitation.
Future work should also examine associations between
mental health and long-term cohabitation in a more recent sample of emerging adults. Although the NLSY97 provides highquality longitudinal data on cohabiting relationships, youth in
the study entered into emerging adulthood around a decade
ago. The recent Great Recession and the growing societal
acceptance and prevalence of cohabitation might influence the
generalizability of these results. For example, the Great Recession in the late 2000s might have lengthened the duration of
cohabiting unions for contemporary youth because youth highlight financial security as an important precursor to marriage
(Smock et al., 2005). In these instances, long-term cohabitation
may be associated with increased distress if emerging adults
want to, but are unable to, marry. However, the growing acceptance of cohabitation may reduce the likelihood that youth
report wanting to marry in emerging adulthood, and longterm cohabitation could be linked to no change in, or even less,
distress, regardless of the Great Recession.
Emerging Adulthood
identify an individual’s transitions into long-term cohabitation
from time spent single or in a short-term cohabitation, accounting for preexisting individual characteristics to better isolate
the effect of long-term cohabitations on health. Because the
meaning of cohabitation has shifted over time (Furstenberg,
2011) and the age at first marriage has risen (Cherlin, 2010),
examining different types of cohabitation, and their associations with health, is becoming increasingly important. Using
a contemporary sample of emerging adults, I found that both
internalizing (emotional distress) and externalizing (heavy episodic drinking) symptoms of distress were associated with
long-term cohabitation. Long-term cohabitation was associated
with increased emotional distress and decreased heavy episodic
drinking compared to time spent single. Further, men reported
more emotional distress from long-term cohabitation than
women; there were no gender differences in heavy episodic
drinking. There was no change in mental health from transitioning from short- to long-term cohabitation. Overall, my findings highlight the importance of considering multiple
indicators of mental health status and suggest that the longterm cohabitations are an understudied union with important
implications for health.
Author Contribution
Sara E. Mernitz contributed to conception, design, acquisition, analysis, and interpretation; drafted the manuscript; critically revised the
manuscript; gave final approval; and agreed to be accountable for all
aspects of work ensuring integrity and accuracy.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to
the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Supplemental Material
Supplementary material for this article is available online.
Note
1. From 1997 to 2004, cohabitation was defined as a “sexual relationship in which partners of the opposite sex live together.” The
phrase “opposite sex” was removed from 2005 to 2013, but the data
still included references to living in a “marriage-like relationship”
when discussing cohabitation (Center for Human Resource
Research, 2013). One percent (n ¼ 113) of the full National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 sample reported being in a same-sex
cohabitation (n ¼ 60 cohabitors would be considered long-term;
thus, I cannot distinguish between same- and different-sex longterm cohabitors).
Conclusion
This study provided an initial examination into the implications
of long-term cohabitation for mental health. By using stringent
change score analyses (i.e., Johnson, 2005), I was able to
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Author Biography
Sara Mernitz is a postdoctoral fellow at the Population Reseach
Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research broadly
focuses on romantic relationships and their longitudinal associations with health. The current manuscript was completed at the
Institute for Population Research at The Ohio State University.
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