Living Together Before Marriage is Still Illegal in Two States

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Cohabitation, or the act of living together with a partner outside of marriage, used to be a rarity. However, it has become quite common in the modern world. Many now see it as a precursor to marriage, while others view it as an alternative option to marriage. A majority of married Americans today (nearly 60%) report that they cohabited before tying the knot [1].

As the popularity of cohabitation has increased, so has social acceptance of the practice. It used to be referred to as “living in sin” and by other derogatory terms, and parents would often react in shock and horror to the idea of their kids living with a partner to whom they weren’t married. In fact, attitudes toward cohabitation used to be so negative that the practice was outlawed in much of the country for a long time.

Believe it or not, two states still have laws on the books banning cohabitation: Mississippi and Michigan. What do these laws look like? In Mississippi, the law prohibits “unlawful cohabitation” in which a man and woman live together and it can be proven that they had “habitual sexual intercourse.”  People convicted of it can be fined up to $500 and sentenced to as much as six months in jail.

Until recently, a few other states had similar laws on the books. For example, Virginia voted to repeal their anti-cohabitation law in 2013, but not without some controversy: 25 lawmakers voted against repeal. Likewise, Florida repealed their ban on cohabitation in 2016.

Even though two states still have anti-cohabitation laws on the books, you might be thinking they probably haven’t been used in a very long time. However, that isn’t necessarily the case. Although these laws haven’t been enforced outright in years (and legal challenges to cohabitation bans have resulted in them being struck down), you can still find relatively recent examples where these laws have been used to punish people. For instance, in 2005, Michigan’s cohabitation law was used by a court to restrict visitation rights for a divorced father who was living with a woman who was not the mother of his children.

If cohabitation has become so widely accepted, then why are these laws still on the books in two states? Perhaps because some politicians want to send a message to citizens about their views on marriage. It could also be that some politicians don’t want to push for repeal due to worries about alienating “family values” voters.

Any way you look at it, there is no scientific basis for discriminating against cohabiting partners. Not only is cohabiting a normative behavior in the sense of being extremely common, but research shows that it isn’t harmful, either. For example, cohabiting couples who go on to marry are not at increased risk of divorce. In other words, cohabiting doesn’t doom your chances of a successful marriage should you decide that marriage is right for you. Likewise, research has also shown that both marriage and cohabitation are beneficial to our health and well-being, and marriage doesn’t necessarily offer any more benefits in this regard than cohabitation [2].

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[1] Copen, C. E., Daniels, K., Vespa, J., Mosher, W. D. (2012). First marriages in the United States: Data from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports, 49, 1-22.

[2] 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.

Image Credit: 123RF/Maksym Poriechkin

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