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.