In recent decades, cohabitation has become an increasingly important relationship context for U.S. adults and their children, a union status characterized by high levels of instability. To understand why some cohabiting couples marry but others separate, researchers have drawn on theories emphasizing the benefits of specialization, the persistence of the male breadwinner norm, low income as a source of stress and conflict, and rising economic standards associated with marriage (the marriage bar). Because of conflicting evidence and data constraints, however, important theoretical questions remain. This study uses survival analysis with prospective monthly data from nationally representative panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation from 1996–2013 to test alternative theories of how money and work affect whether cohabiting couples marry or separate. Analyses indicate that the economic foundations of cohabiting couples’ union transitions do not lie in economic specialization or only men’s ability to be good providers. Instead, results for marriage support marriage bar theory: adjusting for couples’ absolute earnings, increases in wealth and couples’ earnings relative to a standard associated with marriage strongly predict marriage. For dissolution, couples with higher and more equal earnings are significantly less likely to separate. Findings demonstrate that within-couple earnings equality promotes stability, and between-couple inequalities in economic resources are critical in producing inequalities in couples’ relationship outcomes.

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