Joint Investments in Marriage and Cohabitation: The Role of Legal and Symbolic Factors

Anne-Rigt Poortman, Utrecht University
Melinda Mills, University of Groningen

Married couples invest more in the relationship than cohabiters. A debated issue is whether this stems from selection or real differences. We focus on legal and symbolic features presumed to differentiate marriage from cohabitation by distinguishing between: 1) cohabiters with a legal contract and those without, and 2) cohabiters with and without marriage intentions. Using data from the Netherlands, we find little evidence that legal aspects explain married couples’ greater investments. If so, cohabiters without a contract would invest the least. Instead, we find cohabiters with a contract to be least likely to specialize or share social activities. Marriage as a sign of commitment is a better explanation. Cohabiters with marriage plans resemble married couples and both invest more than cohabiters without plans. Although the findings underscore its symbolic meaning, marriage does not foster investments. Marriage plans are already enough, and actual marriage may rather confirm than foster commitment.

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Presented in Session 4: Cohabitation