Friday, March 05, 2010

Cohabitation Still Bad for Your Marriage Chances

A large new report on the effects of cohabitation, led by Pamela Smock, has just been released. Some see it as new evidence that "Cohabiting has little effect on marriage success"as the USA Today head line put it. Others say it shows "Cohabitation Linked to Exponential Increase in Relationship Failure Risk" as puts it.

Both are right. In fact, these findings are nothing new. For at least a decade it has been clear that people who cohabit before marriage do not improve their chances of marital success. Cohabitation is not a good way to "kick the tires," to test your compatibility. This new study confirms that conclusion. However, there is a big difference between people who are already engaged - with a ring and date - when they start cohabiting, as compared to those who live together with no definite plan for the future.

Engaged cohabiters act more like marrieds. "Just living together" couples do not.


Anonymous said...

Is "with a ring and a date" just a turn of phrase? How valuable is an engagement ring/token to the overall approach to marriage? I am finding more and more women forgoing an engagement ring because of concerns about the provenance of the diamond.

Pat said...

Anonymous, cheapskates love women who forgo diamonds, for any reason.

Anonymous said...

Pat, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make. I'm a woman speaking about several of my socially conscious female friends - not a shady guy looking for a cheap fiancee.

My question for Gruntled still stands - does that physical token make a difference?

Gruntled said...

Yes, I think the physical token does make a difference. I think diamonds are a scam created by DeBeers. Our engagement ring was great-grandma's opal. But it is a rare women who does not want, and benefit from, the bended-knee proposal with some showable token.

I think the more important part of "a ring and a date" is the date.

Kelly said...

I might have said this before, but:
I believe there's a correlation, but I haven't seen anything to convince me of a causation. I'd assume a big overlap between people who are willing to live together before marriage and people who are likely to see divorce as a viable option when they aren't happy in their marriages.
I think it's similar to marijuana being a gateway drug- kids who smoke pot are more likely to do other drugs, but smoking pot doesn't necessarily cause you to do other drugs. Almost everyone who uses hard drugs started with pot, but the percentage of pot smokers who go on to use hard drugs isn't that high.
There are exceptions, of course; some people will like the effects of pot enough to try other means of getting high, and some people won't see their marriage as more important than a live-together type relationship they can just walk away from, but I think the rule is correlation, not causation.

Gruntled said...

Kelly: I think the selection problem cannot ever be completely solved.

On the other hand, I think the gateway drug analogy is not quite sound. The closer analogy would be if people argued that smoking pot will prevent them from going on to heroin. People do argue that cohabitation is a good way to test marriage and prevent divorce. This "kicking the tires" approach to cohabitation fails because the power of marriage comes from the commitment - which is exactly the element that cohabitation lacks.

Kerri said...

I just want to say that I hate diamonds and everything they stand for, and wouldn't want a significant other who thought he could prove his affections / intentions with any sort of material gift.

(I want the bended knee thing, though).

And, while I think that a date is important to some folks, I don't think it is necessary. There are those of us who cohabit with our intendeds (myself and some fellow alma mater alums included) but don't have a date in mind at the moment--but we know we're going to set one. What that means is that we've already made the commitment to each other, and are just waiting to make it official for everyone else.

Marion P. said...

Kerri I think you might be fooling yourself into imagining you have a commitment.

What you may have is a boyfriend that enjoys the benefits of marriage without any of the responsibilities. But, I hope not.

Kelly said...

Good point about the effects people argue cohabitation will have on marriage. The drug analogy isn't perfect in that regard, just in demonstrating that what people are likely to do initially (live together, smoke pot) can be aligned with what they do ultimately (divorce, hard drugs) without needing a cause and effect chain from the initial behavior.
Essentially, are cohabitants divorcing because they cohabited, or because they are less inclined to stay married in the first place?
I know causation/correlation isn't something that can be determined in sociological studies like it can be in studies where human behavior is not a variable. I just think people infer causation, when maybe the study shows more connection between behaviors.
As someone who has lived "in sin," I'd argue that while people theorize that couples live together to test drive their relationships, a lot of couples live together (especially when they are renters) without assuming they will marry their partner. Reasons why people think a general someone might live with a partner before marriage might not be why people (even the same people) specifically choose to live with a partner in reality. I didn't know if my relationship would result in marriage in the future (it didn't,) but living together made sense for various reasons in the present. You're completely right about the lack of commitment, though. I didn't have the problem walking away from that relationship that I would have had it been a divorce, not a break-up. I don't know that I would have moved in otherwise.
Why so many people my age think spending a few years in a live-in relationship with someone they might not want to marry is a good idea is a whole 'nother issue.
Also, does someone's past cohabitation with person x make a future marriage to person y more likely to end in divorce? in other words, if there is causation, is it the cohabitation in general or the cohabitation with the future spouse specifically that creates the increased chance of divorce?
There are a lot of variables, obviously. I guess I generally think that marriage works or fails becuase of what happens during the marriage, not what happened before it. Of course, our pasts determine our futures to a great extent, so it's a pretty intertwined/tangled up issue.
Finally, I'm not too traditional and not a huge fan of diamonds, but I think some wedding traditions are just so ingrained in us that we sometimes want the symbol even when we don't agree with what it symbolizes. I don't think my dad can give someone permission to marry me (well, he can, but my permission to marry me is all that's needed) or that he can give me away- I won't have gone from being his daughter to someone's wife without having my own identity, but do I want my future husband to ask for my hand from my dad? Yes. And do I want my dad to walk me down the aisle and give me away? Yes. For some reason, for a lot of women around my age, our feelings about traditional marriage rituals don't line up with our feelings about other traditional gender-role-oriented things. It's probably connected to something about the perception of feminism in the generation ahead of us being militant and anti-men and something about Disney princesses, but since I wasn't a women's studies major, I'm not going to try to parse the issue!

Gruntled said...

I think the core concern of marriage is a permanent commitment that makes it safe to raise children in. And I think it is more biological than cultural that women are more attached to marriage, including all the cultured ways of expressing commitment, for this deep, largely biological, child protecting reason.

Kerri said...

I speak to a situation that might be specific to twenty-somethings, when the benefits of marriage (to BOTH of us) aren't much different than the benefits of a monogamous and committed dating relationship (with or without a ring) because we are both quite fortunate to be relatively free of responsibilities at this point. I only mentioned it because several of my peers seem to be in a similar situation.