Friday, May 09, 2008

Cohabitation as Broken Window

James Q. Wilson is most famous for his "broken windows" theory of crime. He argues that communities should aggressively combat small quality-of-life crimes, such as broken windows and graffiti, to prevent larger ones. The theory is that if a neighborhood is visibly neglected, the criminals move in. The nest is unprotected, and the larger predators figure they can get away with anything. When a community lets the small disorders of broken windows multiply without resistance, the big disorders -- robbery, rape, murder - grow, too.

In my family life class we ended with another fine James Q. Wilson book, The Marriage Problem. He argues that the breakdown of marriage is at the root of the rest of our social disorders. One of the most widespread ways of undermining marriage is cohabitation. Many people cohabit before marriage, and some cohabit instead of marriage. Most college graduates -- always the most strategic group in adult social trends -- cohabit before marriage. They think it is a rational way to test the relationship before the big commitment.

Research over the past decade, though, has shown that cohabitation is not a good test drive for marriage. On the contrary, couples who cohabit before marriage have a higher divorce rate than couples who do not live together first. College graduates, being a smart and better informed group, have begun to change their habits as this research gets diffused more widely.

Putting these two ideas together yields an interesting insight: cohabitation is like broken windows in the neighborhood of relationships. A community that tolerates cohabitation indicates that its social neighborhood is unprotected. Marriage becomes just another personal choice, not the bedrock of social order. When a community lets the small disorders of cohabitation multiply without resistance, the big disorders -- divorce, illegitimacy, domestic violence - grow, too.


Tausign said...

Once upon a time a landlord could deny a rental unit to a couple who were not married, especially if the landlord lived in the same building. Today the landlord would probably be arrested for discrimination or have a stiff fine.

Anonymous said...

Cohabitation and divorce rates--- Correlation is not causation!

Living in a rural area is correlated with low divorce rates too, but I don't think moving to a farm would keep a marriage together.

Wouldn't it be possible,especially now that cohabitation is so socially acceptable, that those who don't want to live together before marriage hold differant ideas about divorce than those who will? In which case, it has nothing to do with if you chose to live together before marriage or not---but the beliefs and attitudes that you hold about marriage.
Sorry if I misunderstood you, but figured I'd throw my two cents in.

Gruntled said...

Correlation is, indeed not causation. And there is it likely that some of the reason that people who don't cohabit first have more successful marriages is a selection effect - they were more pro-marriage to begin with. Waite and Gallagher, who report this research, controlled for this difference as much as one could.

Talking to many college students planning their lives, though, I have heard many times that they think cohabitation is the more rational and prudent way to try out married life. They change their minds about that plan, though, once they appreciate how much of marital success depends on the couple making a permanent, public commitment -- something cohabitation just can't achieve.