Cohabitation and Marriage Quality, Rates of Divorce, etc.

I decided to research and write this after having a discussion and realizing that all my arguments were anecdotal, so I did what any good dork would do. I searched JSTOR and wrote about it. With the exception of research concerning vitamins and phytochemicals this is easily some of the most frustrating and in many instances poorly done research I've ever read. I rarely feel that I have the right to criticize so many psychological studies and pHDs (especially considering that all I possess is a B.S. in psych and to be honest I wasn't exactly a stellar psych student), but in this case I make an exception.

Many of the studies made use of data from the 1960's through the mid-1990's which is problematic because cohabitation is a fairly recent phenomenon; which also presents some research opportunities as natural experiments. A few studies that I read tried to exploit this but were unable to find a result as the sample sizes they used were too small to procure a significant result. One study (#2) didn't account for the religiosity of the participants in its study. Why bother even publishing your study - to prove that there is a difference between religious couples who get married without living together first and those who cohabit and don't subscribe to any particular religion? You don't need to do a study to know that... never the less it has now been proven. Anyways, less bitching more science.

It is fairly well agreed that those who cohabit, as a general population, are more likely to get divorced and do tend to be less happy with their marriages* (way at the bottom). This is more or less agreed upon although many seem to make this the sole point of their investigation, but to me that seems to miss the point. What's dangerous about just hearing this is that one is inclined to believe that one leads to another (correlation does not equal causation - the mantra of every stats class). But look at popular media. It's not a lie, couples who cohabit are more likely to struggle and fail, but most people who read that are going to imply that living together before marriage is going to negatively effect their relationship, but read carefully. They're just saying that the two are correlated - not that one causes the other. Cohabitation is merely selective of those who are less committed and more approving of divorce.

There are currently three ways to approach why this difference exists. The first is the duration of the relationship, then the selection perspective, and finally the experience of cohabitation perspective.

1- The duration of the relationship effects a marriage (and studies surrounding it) in that those who cohabit before marriage are essentially beginning their marriages earlier. Since half of all divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage and marriage satisfaction tends to decrease with time (Kurdek, 1999) these marriages do tend to be less happy and end earlier. Thus, by the time people end up marrying they are less happy with their relationship and closer to divorce from a statistical perspective.

2 - The selection perspective posits that those who enter into cohabitation are less likely to be religious, more accepting of divorce, to not believe in marriage, are often younger when they get married (which is a really good predictor of divorce), are more likely to have divorced parents, etc. This position is well supported (#1) with the only real objections coming from studies that I find a bit lacking. Sample sizes of 90 and not accounting for religiousness just don't seem scientifically rigorous. Again, people who choose to cohabit as opposed to get married right away are very distinct groups. For a really good reading of this check out the discussion section of #5 below. I won't get into all of it here but it explores the relationship between education, gender, religiousness (not a reliable predictor of promiscuity), cohabitation, and a few other variables in relationship outcomes. Their main conclusion is that cohabiting women tend to act more like dating women than married women, and that the characteristics by which cohabiting people choose partners is different than those used by those who do not live together before marriage.

3 - The experience perspective says that the actual act of cohabiting somehow effects its participants - generally to the detriment of their future relationships. I found less evidence for this effect. Those that did support this conclusion had what I thought was unconvincing if not well done research. The third study below says that although significant results were found they were admittedly small and due to unidentified third-party variables (hmmm), so it essentially became another study linking cohabitation to divorce and less stable marriages.

Some conclusions from what I read:

Couples who cohabit prior to marriage, as a group, tend to have less satisfying marriages (and really relationships) in general for many reasons. While some researchers think the variables determining this effect are known others are unsure.

In the early 1990's about 60% of people lived together before marriage. Contrast that with only 10% in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Divorce rates for first marriages (not second and so on) during that period have stayed relatively stable.

Some studies (#4) have found that when premarital cohabitation and premarital sex are limited to only the person married (in this case the woman marrying her husband, I have no idea why this study was only done for women) the levels of satisfaction and divorce are no different than those who did not engage in premarital sex or premarital cohabitation. By extension, this supports the selection perspective in that those who get married without living together beforehand are in fact a different group of people than those who cohabit long before marriage.

The longer a couple cohabits, the more likely they are to get married. By year ten over 80% of (white) cohabiting couples get married. If a couple that cohabited is still married past seven years the negative effect associated with cohabiting prior to marriage disappears.

As living together prior to marriage first became mildly tolerated, at least legally, the most common reason was to do so was to "see if a marriage was possible." Essentially a trial run. This is no longer the case. People are more likely to respond that they cohabit to see their partner more often and for reasons of convenience and economy.

Cohabitation is illegal in five states: Florida, Mississippi, West Virginia, Virginia, and Michigan. Although, to be fair, it's rarely enforced.

Regardless of living status before being married, marriage increases the level of commitment in a relationship. However, those that marry without living together first tend to be more similar in terms of ascribed characteristics such as age and religion. Those who cohabit tend to select partners based on achieved status (#5).

*This study (#6) bucks the trend in saying that cohabitation may not in fact be deleterious to a marriage. At least not intrinsically. Its discussion section is well worth a read. Here's an excerpt:

"Far from being a mere rite of passage, the act of becoming formally married may have deep and quite different meaning for those who marry after cohabiting or after traditional courtship. To the latter, marriage is a liberating ritual through which new possibilities, notably, the public establishment of a common household, are opened to a couple and are celebrated. Cohabiters have already established common residence and have had to define their roles to each other and before friends and, often, to defend their action before parents. To them, the aspect of marriage which is emphasized is not the freedom it brings but the assumption of new responsibilities. It is this which, reflected in responses to the items of the scale, leads to their lower scores. If this latter explanation of the score differentials is valid, one would predict that as couples move further into their first decade, their premarital practice, whether courtship or cohabitation, would have progressively less influence on marital adjustment."

The studies I consulted were the following (these aren't full citations, I'm assuming no one is going to look them up but if you do this info should be sufficient):

1 - The Relationship between Cohabitation and Divorce: Selectivity or Causal Influence?, by William G. Axinn and Arland Thornton Demography, 1992 Population Association of America.

2 - The Relationship between Cohabitation and Marital Quality and Stability: Change across Cohorts?, by Claire M. Kamp Dush, Catherine L. Cohan and Paul R. Amato Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003 National Council on Family Relations.

3 - Toward a Greater Understanding of the Cohabitation Effect: Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Communication, by Catherine L. Cohan and Stacey Kleinbaum Journal of Marriage and Family, 2002 National Council on Family Relations.

4 - Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution among Women, by Jay Teachman Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003 National Council on Family Relations.

5- Sexual Exclusivity among Dating, Cohabiting, and Married Women, by Renata Forste and Koray Tanfer Journal of Marriage and Family, 1996 National Council on Family Relations.

6 - Premarital Cohabitation vs. Traditional Courtship: Their Effects on Subsequent Marital Adjustment, by Roy E. L. Watson Family Relations, 1983 National Council on Family Relations.