Social Science and Legal Policy: The Case of Heterosexual Cohabitation

54 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2012  

Cynthia Grant Bowman

Cornell University - Law School

Date Written: 2007


The rate at which people live together in unmarried unions has increased enormously in recent decades, making this one of the remarkable social changes of our era. The response to this change in the law review literature has been inadequate. Recent articles about cohabitation have argued simply that the institution of marriage is better than cohabitation for both the couple and their children, and the law should therefore be structured so as to discourage this conduct, because to give legal protections to cohabitants will harm the institution of marriage.1 Based on an extensive review of the social science literature, I conclude that these arguments are mistaken. Even though marriage may work better overall, this is no argument to deny protection and state benefits to cohabitants. Demographic, social, and economic data show that many cohabitants and their children are vulnerable in ways that could be substantially helped by extending to them the legal protections and government benefits given to married persons. Moreover, extensive data from both the United States and other nations demonstrate no correlation between the availability of legal protections for cohabitants and the prevalence of marriage. Indeed, few people even know, much less are influenced by, their legal rights when making decisions about intimate relationships or childbearing. This article explores the findings of social scientists about cohabitation and argues that the appropriate response is not to deny cohabitants the protection of the law.

Keywords: Cohabitation, Unmarried couples

Suggested Citation

Bowman, Cynthia Grant, Social Science and Legal Policy: The Case of Heterosexual Cohabitation (2007). Journal of Law & Family Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2007; Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-52. Available at SSRN:

Cynthia Grant Bowman (Contact Author)

Cornell University - Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Register to support our free research


Paper statistics

Abstract Views