04:11pm Sunday 31 May 2020

Cohabitants mostly have as good mental health as married counterparts


illustration photoThis is shown in a new study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

In Norway, cohabitation is widespread. Most young people choose to live together rather than marry in their first relationships, every other first birth occurs outside of marriage and divorced people often prefer to cohabit than marry. Cohabitation is widespread across social strata and is socially accepted.

Mental health differences partially erased

Cohabitation is also common in the other Nordic countries. Despite this, there have been few Nordic studies of mental health of cohabitants. Studies from other countries have generally shown that cohabiting couples have poorer mental health than married couples. The new results from Norway only partly agree with previous research.

“There are strong indications that as cohabitation becomes more widespread in a population, the mental health differences between married and cohabiting couples are partially erased. For this reason it was somewhat surprising to find that cohabiting couples with children struggled with alcohol addiction to a greater extent than married couples with children. When we know that more and more children in Norway grow up with cohabiting parents, this is concerning for both parents and children involved,” said researcher Anne Reneflot from the Division of Mental Health and Svenn-Erik Mamelund from the Division of Infectious Control at the NIPH.

The new study also shows that a higher proportion of divorced cohabitants reported that they had experienced a major depression than married people. However, at the time of interview there was no difference between cohabitants and married people in the proportions who reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, who in the past year had been subjected to psychological or physical violence, or who had used illegal drugs and psychotropic drugs.

The study is published in the European Sociological Review, and is based on the Living Conditions Survey (2005) from Statistics Norway.

Why is the mental health of cohabiting and married people different?

Cohabitation is very common in Norway. Yet there are differences between the proportion of married and cohabiting couples who have experienced a major depression or alcohol dependence – why is this so?

“It may be due to systematic differences between the married and cohabitants, and where men and women at increased risk of mental health problems and alcohol problems are less likely to marry than those with a lower risk of such problems. Moreover, there may be differences between the two union forms that also has significance for mental health, such as different lifestyles and social control,” explain Reneflot and Mamelund. “That is, married couples may have expectations about appropriate lifestyle, including substance abuse, to a greater extent than cohabitants. American research finds that young people who marry to a larger extent reduce their use of illegal drugs than young entering cohabitation.”

Cohabiting and married people generally have better mental health than those who are single.


Reneflot, A., Mamelund, S.-E. (2011): The association between marital status and psychological well-being in Norway. European Sociological Review 2011; doi: 10.1093/esr/jcq069

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