No group is more supportive of living together—despite evidence that four out of five couples who begin cohabiting will not build a lasting marriage—than the young. While 90 percent of teenagers believe in marriage, they view cohabitation as a stepping-stone in the relationship—a good way to get know their partner and avoid a future divorce. Sixty-nine percent say they “approve” of couples “living together before they get married.” They say, “If things don’t work out, we can chalk it up to experience and move on. At least we will have learned something about ourselves and marriage.”
Pamela Smock, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Michigan, writes: “Common sense suggests that premarital cohabitation should provide an opportunity for couples to learn about each other, strengthen their bonds, and increase their chances for a successful marriage. . . . The evidence, however, suggests just the opposite. Premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and to increase the risk of divorce, even after taking into account of variables known to be associated with divorce. . . . The degree of consensus about this central finding is impressive.”
What starts as lower levels of commitment among those who choose to cohabit eventually translates into lower levels of relationship happiness both before and after the wedding, if there is a wedding. This outcome will come as a surprise to men who insist on living with a woman before considering marriage. The truth is, instead of improving their odds of success, they unwittingly improve their odds of failure.
Why is the divorce rate so much higher for couples who marry after cohabiting? Two theories have credence.
1. The “Selection Effect”
The first theory, put forth by Dr. Bumpass, is the “selection effect.” Those who live together before marriage differ substantially from those who do not, and those differences increase the likelihood of marital instability for former cohabitors. Cohabitors tend to be less educated. For example, cohabiting women are twice as likely to be high-school dropouts than college graduates. Cohabitors also tend to have nontraditional values and attitudes.
They are less likely to be religious and more likely to dismiss advice to remain chaste before marriage. They are more likely to be children of divorce. They are less committed to marriage and, when troubles arise, more open to divorce.
The problem with this theory is that most high-school dropouts in 1960 didn’t cohabit before they married, nor did the less religious nor the more liberal. It simply was not done. Additionally, few of their parents had divorced.
What has changed the culture so dramatically? The Sexual Revolution. When the birth control pill was introduced, the perceived dangers of premarital sex were lessened and the era of “free love” was ushered in. Premarital sexual activity brought less of a stigma; it actually became a badge of honor and a sign of modernity. Eventually sex without the bonds of marriage became accepted as the norm. The “Playboy Philosophy,” popularized by Hugh Hefner, promoted consensual sex anywhere, anytime, with anyone. Widespread cohabitation is the logical outgrowth of such a societal frame of reference.
2. The Cohabitation Effect
The other, more probable, theory to explain why living together dooms so many marriages is that the experience of cohabiting changes young adults in ways that increase their chances of divorce. The very act of cohabiting, with its casual, impermanent bonding, diminishes respect for commitment, especially the till-death-do-us-part vows of marriage.
As Pamela Smock notes: “Through cohabitation people learn about and come to accept the temporary nature of relationships and in particular that there are alternatives to marriage.” She cites a study showing that living together between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three “significantly alters young men’s and women’s attitudes toward marriage and divorce.” It changes “people’s attitudes in ways that make them more prone to divorce.”
But cohabitation changes even more than people’s perspectives on marriage and divorce. It seems to dramatically affect the way people view and respond to their partners. Dr. Catherine Cohan of Pennsylvania State University explained to Reuters Health what she observed in yet another eye-opening study comparing the marriages of people who had cohabited with those who had not: “Those people who lived together were more negative and less positive when resolving a marital problem and when providing support to their partner.” She found that even those who cohabited for just one month before marriage actually displayed poorer communication and problem-solving skills than those who did not live together.
According to Dr. Cohan’s report, coauthored with Stacey Kleinbaum, in the February 2002 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, 60 percent of test subjects who had cohabited before marriage were more verbally aggressive, less supportive of one another, and more hostile than the 40 percent of spouses who had not lived together.
Researchers visited the couples at home, interviewed partners separately, and then videotaped two fi fteen-minute sessions, in the absence of the interviewer, in which the partners sought to solve a problem that had been selected by each from a list that included sex, money, children, housework, career, and religion. The videotapes revealed that couples who had first lived together displayed more negative behavior than those who had not. Husbands who had cohabited, for example, were more likely to attempt to control their wives, while the wives were more verbally aggressive.
Cohan and Kleinbaum concluded that couples who live together before marriage enter the relationship with lower commitment. It takes a higher level of commitment to marry than to cohabit. “The open-ended nature of the relationship may cause them to be less motivated to develop their conflict resolution and support skills.”
The researchers said those who cohabited were not doomed to divorce but did have “poorer communication skills” than those who remained separate until the wedding. Cohan added, “I can say, however, there’s nothing in the research that says living together helps people in the long run.”
People who cohabit seem to lose respect for themselves and for their partner, while those who form a household only after marriage have inherently higher self-respect and respect for their spouse.
Cohabitation is a supercharged engine producing dissatisfied couples and, as a result, more divorces—thus contributing to and sustaining America’s high divorce rate.
From LIVING TOGETHER by Mike McManus and Harriet McManus. Copyright (c) 2008 by Michael J. McManus and Harriet E. McManus. Reprinted by permission of Howard Publishing, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Mike McManus is a Duke graduate who was Time's youngest correspondent in 1963. He has been a nationally syndicated columnist since 1977, whose award-winning "Ethics & Religion" column is published weekly. Mike's book Marriage Savers inspired clergy to create Community Marriage Policies that have reduced divorce and cohabitation rates in more than one hundred cities. He and his wife, Harriet, cofounded Marriage Savers, Inc., to help clergy better prepare, enrich, and restore marriages. They have personally mentored fifty-seven couples preparing for marriage.
Harriet McManus married Mike in 1965. She was the first editor of Marriage Savers and Mikes other books and is editor of Mike's columns. Together they have initiated a premarital marriage ministry in their church, Fourth Presbyterian in Bethesda, Maryland, and they pioneered the training of Mentor Couples to administer a premarital inventory. She works full-time for Marriage Savers as a writer, editor, and trainer. She and Mike have three sons and six grandchildren.